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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

Get Good at Being Mediocre

"One of the biggest things holding people back from doing great work is the fear of making something lame."
—Paul Graham

"This sucks." You know the feeling. You've been toiling away at your project when you come to a halting realization—the thing your building is lame. Full of holes. Buggy. Incomplete. The shame is insufferable; so you procrastinate. Maybe you take the easy path and quit outright. Often, you get trapped in the endless loop of perfectionism, afraid to release anything to the world for fear of looking like you don't know what the hell you're doing.

Imagine how effective you could be if this fear didn't control you. What could your life look like if you weren't afraid to suck at something?

The truth is that great work is nothing more than bad work that's been sufficiently reworked. All great projects start as something lame. If we take this as a given, then it follows that getting comfortable building lame things might be a worthwhile endeavor. This is not to say that the end goal should be a lame product. Rather, it's about accepting that you can't "get to great" at anything without first sucking at it.

Aiming for Average

Thankfully, learning how to accept mediocrity is a skill that can be practiced like any other. As someone with deeply perfectionist tendencies, I can attest. Public speaking serves as a prime example. In college, I had the unfortunate experience of suffering a panic attack in front of a room full of classmates. It was mortifying. The experience rattled me deeply, creating a cascading effect of fear and avoidance that lasted well into my thirties.

Eventually, I finally decided to face down my fear; I turned to Toastmasters. Grinding it out over a couple of years, my speaking ability improved steadily. Eventually, I was consistently winning best-speech awards and receiving glowing feedback from my peers. Outwardly, my efforts appeared to be working. Internally, I was still a fucking mess. The dread and anxiety leading up to each speech were tying me in knots.

I doubled down, consistently pouring 100% of my effort into crafting the perfect speech, and nailing my delivery. But it didn't help. In some respects, the anxiety actually got worse.

Then, I had a realization—I was focused on the wrong thing. It wasn't the act of public speaking that was causing my angst, it was my perfectionism. Ironically, my efforts to be flawless were feeding my subconscious belief that anything less was shameful.

This was a revelation. I realized that letting go of this perfectionism was something I could deliberately practice. Accepting mediocrity became my sole focus.

I called my new approach "aiming for average." I slashed my preparation time for speeches dramatically. I put a limit on the number of times I would allow myself to rehearse. I purposely tried not to win the best speech award. And I picked topics I knew I would struggle with.

This went against all of my instincts, but after giving a few "acceptably average" speeches, something interesting began to happen. The angst began to unravel. It was as if I'd finally found the right string to pull on in a complicated knot. I relaxed more. I became less afraid to explore complex subject matter. I felt more present and connected to the audience, less rehearsed, less robotic. Ironically, aiming for average didn't just make me more comfortable, it made me a better public speaker.

Candidly, public speaking is still not something I enjoy. And don't get me wrong, I still battle nerves before nearly every speech. But I've come a long way from the crippling dread I used to experience. And I attribute a large part of that success to getting good at being mediocre.

A Hard Truth

We can easily fall victim to a false belief—one so deep-seated that we don't even realize we hold it—that to be successful, we must always appear successful. This is a pernicious trap; It has likely robbed the world of countless great innovations, causing ideas to die on the vine when early setbacks sent their creators reeling into a pit of shame and self-flagellation.

In reality, if we want to reach our potential, failure is not optional. The early phases of our most important work almost always suck, sometimes badly. If we want great results, failure is a prerequisite. We have to flounder. We have to make mistakes. We have to appear unprepared and unsure. Although we may not admit it, even to ourselves, this makes us deeply uncomfortable.

Innoculate yourself against the fear of failure; get good at being mediocre. Go give a shitty presentation. Initiate that difficult conversation. Kick-off that wildly ambitious project. Write a dirty first draft. Admit out loud that you have no idea what you're doing. When you become willing to directly challenge the fear of failure, you become free to do your best work. Only by learning how to suck at something can you unlock the ability to be great at it.

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