On the Merits of Mediocrity

We really don't have to exaggerate.

by Sohra Behmanesh, November 22, 2022
On the Merits of Mediocrity

I think we've talked quite a bit about how perfectionism is not exactly one of the happiest curves we take in our personal development. Perfectionism is one of those coping strategies that actually means well, because we've experienced "mistakes can't be allowed, otherwise I'll be shamed and sanctioned" and concluded that it must be possible not to make mistakes, otherwise it would be illogical to punish mistakes. So it would have to be up to ourselves and we would just have to try really, really hard to finally become impeccable. But no denial helps: Setting the pursuit of constant, perfect excellence as the lowest bar doesn't at all translate into success for most. Rather, perfectionism often simply leads to procrastination - because if we avoid tasks, we can do no wrong, right? Logical.

And what if it does work out, if we do succeed? South Korean rapper Psy, who scored a record-breaking international mega-hit in 2013 with his song "Gangnam Style" also described this achievement as a "nightmare" in an interview, because how was he supposed to top it with the next song? He was probably aware (and should be proven right) that this won’t be possible, but that didn't stop him from embracing that pressure for higher, faster, further. Perfectionism doesn’t even allow us to fully enjoy our successes, to be satisfied with them.

And: perfectionism also makes us simply dishonest. In a society where our value as human beings is measured by the excellence of our performance and mistakes are not foreseen, it is simply human and obvious to deny it as soon as we make mistakes. And often there is not even wantonness behind it. Our socialization: It cannot be what must not be. And so we tell ourselves "white lies." A white lie, for example, is to take on a task even though a part of us knows (or could know) that it would be beyond our time capacities - but we don't allow ourselves to refuse or outsource. Because we think we have to say yes, we do, assuring ourselves in completely unfounded and unrealistic optimism that we can still squeeze it in somewhere.

Many of us have yet to learn that there is no real, reliable standard for perfection, but that it often simply takes a decision to mark a task as complete. Because if we're honest, there would ALWAYS be something left to add, something left to research, something left to polish. So deciding "good enough" is the order of the day. But... how do we know what is good enough? I've written before about how the bar for what is considered good enough, whose performance is considered valuable and important and whose is not, is not the same for everyone - it looks different for marginalized groups of people than it does for privileged groups of people.

And... what if we strive not only to overcome perfectionism, but also this completely undefined and arbitrary "good enough"...?

Shall we talk about the equalizing option of normalizing mediocre performance?

Of course: For some groups of people this has been normal for a long time, we just rarely talk about it - and they still get away with it! Editor Elsa Koester once pointed this out in a tweet, writing:

"I'm so tired of having to persuade super-smart female authors to write texts, who then cancel because they responsibly want to write really well with a lot of time - with the result that I then ask a guy who slaps the text on the page in 2 hours. Many female authors have care work on their hands, in the pandemic even more so, plus a greater insecurity, coupled with the demand to do it really well. Result: female authors turn me down much more often than male authors. [...] If I ask a man, he almost always says yes, and if he doesn't have time, he doesn't say so, but you can just tell that the text was hectic. The content then disappoints, but hey: at least my page is full!"

Don't get me wrong, patriarchy is not a model for my feminism. I want emancipatory processes to be intersectional and sensitive to privilege, I don't want us women to fight for patriarchal entitlement - I want us to keep the big picture in mind and practice being soft and caring with ourselves and each other.

This is important because these patriarchal, capitalist, classist dominance hierarchies are so powerful, we have internalized high-performance thinking not only for the wage-work world, but they have long since taken over our leisure time and our bodies as well. If we find any time at all for hobbies like art, music, or needlework besides wage labor, the demand is increasingly higher than simply pursuing them for fun, relaxation, and personal creative expression - who knows, maybe the hobby could even be monetized if only we learned it "good enough"...?

And when women have recently had a baby, it's not "good enough" when it shows on our bodies; and when we're tired, we don't look "good enough" when it shows on our faces. Not having learned to be satisfied with ourselves has long since spread to all possible areas of life.

And therefore: Here’s to the courage to be mediocre! This does not have to be an absolute matter, it can also refer to partial performances. My strengths include out-of-the-box thinking or being able to write and speak quite well, and I usually can't think of any reason to be nervous before I speak in front of people. What is not one of my strengths (to say the least): time management. On the neurodivergent spectrum, I am where there is no relationship to time that is docked to reality. So I'm pretty sure I've never once turned in my column on deadline, and for almost every column I've handed in, I skipped at least one full night's sleep. And now, as my year as a columnist draws to a close, I realize that I could have saved myself so much pressure and shame, and my colleagues the stress that a late submission causes in their schedule. I could have "only" communicated my inability in this specific area to deliver a level of performance that is not only imperfect, but not even "early enough": "Let's move the deadline up two-three days, otherwise I won't be able to do it.” Instead, I told myself a white lie every month, "Next month I'll just start earlier! This time for sure"

Superb texts and completely puny sense of time somehow meet in the result in an extremely okay mediocrity - for which in this case a quite simple solution could have been found...!

But of course Generation Z has long since developed a fancy version of this: Quiet Quitting or Acting your Wage. On TikTok these ideas go viral, according to which young people say goodbye to a wage-work mentality that takes over life and glorifies workaholism and the prioritization of professional careers. Quiet Quitters finish work on time and conscientiously take their breaks and vacation days. They would never think of dragging themselves to work sick and do their contracted workload based on the bare minimum - no more, no less. They don't fall for job ads that expect you to be passionate about the job - because they know that will come down to personally identifying with the job, giving at least 150% out of a crude work idealism; excellent prospects of burning out themselves included.

What an unexciting strategy to cheat capitalism! I'm sold!


In this column, presented in collaboration with our friends from Wildling Shoes, we want to give more space and visibility to the issues of anti-discrimination, belonging, and intersectionality in the workplace. Through articles, interviews, and diverse perspectives, we aim to both challenge and inspire those working in the impact sector - while encouraging them to create authentically lived workspaces that foster more belonging and less discrimination. By gaining new perspectives and engaging in a shared dialogue, we can take a collective step toward radical systems change in the impact sector - from "power over" and "power for" to "power with." 

Our columnist for 2022 is Sohra Behmanesh. She lives with her family in Berlin, works as a freelance anti-racism trainer, and finds caring and empathy just as superb as intersectionality. 

You can find more Belonging articles here.

Photo: Kris Wolf