I initially started this post by writing that I wasn’t afraid of many things, but then I began to list them in my mind and it turns out I’m a phobiac (I made that word up to mean “one having many phobias” or “a wimp”). Some of my many fears are listed below for your entertainment:
I’m sure there are more but I want to save some face. In spite of these, there is one thing I fear more than any of the above, my greatest fear: mediocrity. I fear being “ordinary.” I often get this sinking feeling that I will one day look back on my life and say “I could have done more with what I had.” Now, before you refer me to Dr. Phil for some confidence-counseling, rest assured that this fear also has a positive outcome — it has driven me from a segmented, incongruent life to a more purpose-driven and authentic life. I have fought the fear and landed in a better place. Yet mediocrity still haunts me on an almost-daily basis. I vacillate between feeling like I am living up to my potential and feeling like a bum. The thing is, I often feel more like the latter than the former. In other words, I spend a great deal of my days feeling like a giant bum (I’m leaving the door wide open for jokes and one-liners in the comments). Several years ago it occurred to me that the thing that separates those who do great things from those who don’t is their power to fight mediocrity and rise above it, and I have found a proven way to do this, to fight the “ordinary.”
Take That, Ordinary!
Mediocrity is the state of being “neither good nor bad” or “of moderate quality, inferior.” It has a close cousin called “status quo.” We become medicore when we fit a standard of some sort and do neither good things nor bad. Intuitively, then, the way to combat this feeling is to live on the extremes of the continuum; that is, to be either really excellent or really crappy. Even with the latter you can guarantee that you aren’t mediocre.
I’ll save “10 Steps to a Crappy Life” for another post. To be really excellent, though, takes one simple thing that you can begin doing NOW. It is to be who you are. Those who conform to who they think they should be may never rise above the standard. But those who take a moment to ask themselves “who am I” and “what do I do well, better than almost anyone I know” are those who will figure out a way to be better than mediocre. Ask yourself the following:
Your answers to the questions above will yield great insights into your “silver bullets” for combatting mediocrity.
Five Simpler Ways to Fight Mediocrity
For those of you who are a bit less reflective, below are five simple things you could do now that are above-the-status quo activities — things that the general public probably doesn’t do — that will make you feel like you are living a more productive life:
1. Read the news. Take 10 minutes to read NPR.org or some other news channel you trust, searching for interesting articles that will help you be more informed.
2. Exercise. Drop to the floor and knock out 10 pushups right now…I guarantee that will put you 10 pushups ahead of most Americans, let alone the guy in the cubicle next door.
3. Write a 300-word progress report. Identify the things you are doing well and the things you could work on. Also include goals you would like to achieve and how you plan to get there. Or simply write what you would do with your life if money was no object. This won’t take as long as you think. (This post is inching past 661 words as we speak and it has taken less than 20 minutes to draft.)
4. Thank someone for their contribution to your life. Gratitude is an oft-neglected principle in society that mediocre people take for granted. By thanking someone for something they’ve done you are instantly rising above the standard that we often live by.
5. Reset your day. In an earlier post, I suggested taking a break around 11am and 2:30pm to reset your energy and your to-do list. Walk around the office, stretch, grab some water, then set some short-term goals to accomplish before leaving the office. Unlike most people who waste away the waning hours of the day on ESPN.com or my blog, you will immediately infuse your life with a jolt of productivity and be living well above ordinary.
What other ways have you found to fend off mediocrity? Share your thoughts in the comments and fight the good fight!
Following your passion takes guts. There’s often nothing easy about doing what you love, particularly because it doesn’t immediately pay dividends. But I also believe the investment you make in doing what you love can yield a massive payout later in life in financial security and, more importantly, in happiness and well-being.
After working with various types of people at different stages of their careers, I’ve seen a few themes emerge. There are obviously other scenarios, but these two are prevalent:
1) Individuals pick a path that is proven to lead to financial security. They find security, often quickly, but also find that they don’t like what they do. The quarter- and/or mid-life crisis hits and they feel driven to find their true passion and follow it. However, by now they are so heavily invested in their field that leaving it behind takes an enormous leap of faith. Some make that leap, but many do not.
2) Individuals choose to seek out an undefined path, starting and stopping various activities in an attempt to truly discover a vocation or “life’s work.” They may struggle for some time, even enduring ridicule, negativity, or doubt from close family members and friends. When they find their passion and invest themselves in it, they eventually become well known for what they do because they naturally thrive in their self-selected environment — they are doing what they love and people recognize it. Not only do they recognize it, but people pay them well for their talent. Good pay + high levels of satisfaction leads to increased well-being. Like the former example, they also took leaps of faith, but these likely occurred earlier in their journey.
From my tone, you can probably sense that I advocate for the latter anecdote. So many of the people I work with follow the pre-defined paths to “success” without a true conviction to drive their pursuit. This may take the form of individuals pursuing law, pre-med, engineering, or business, without really knowing why. Don’t get me wrong — these are valuable fields that need intelligent and committed agents; in addition, people may truly have passion for these arenas and make significant contributions (in fact, those with passion are likely the ones making the significant contributions). But choosing one of these fields because you don’t know what else to do could lead to a difficult path later in life.
On the other hand, individuals who invest the time, energy, and self-reflection now to identify a compatible life path, and then pursue it with vigor, may not see an immediate “reward.” I’m one of these. I’ve identified a passion and pursued it whole-heartedly, but I’m still not driving a Jaguar. However, monetary reward isn’t at the top of my list and the satisfaction and sense of congruence I feel on a daily basis makes up for the lack of financial perks. But I still believe that the time and effort I’ve invested to identify my path will likely lead to a jump in compensation in addition to the peace that comes with following a passion.
I was reading this interview yesterday in the Harvard Business Review with Ricky Gervais, the guy who developed the idea for The Office (a.k.a. he now makes a lot of money and loves what he does). I didn’t realize two things about him: 1) He didn’t hit paydirt until he was 40 (as a result of The Office), and 2) He used to be an events director of a student union. There’s hope for us all!
What struck me about the interview was this question and answer:
HBR: Tell me about a time you failed.
Gervais: Well, I certainly failed at being a pop star, and that was my fault, because I was trying to be a pop star and I should have been trying to be a musician. That taught me a lesson. I was only 20, and I wasn’t doing what I wanted, I was doing what I thought would be successful. So I deserved to fail. And I’m glad I did, obviously.
“I was doing what I thought would be successful” instead of “what I wanted.” I think that’s a powerful and self-aware statement. Too often we look at vocation as a quest to find the quickest way to the gravy train; after all, money can be a tangible measure of success. I truly believe, though, that those who eventually succeed, and lead others, are those who do what they were meant to do instead of what they think will bring success.
Maya Angelou had this to say about finding success:
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”
Do you agree? Disagree? Drop me a note in the comments. I’m interested to hear what you think. And if you know someone who may benefit from this article, please pass it along!
I can’t say “no.” Actually, I can say “no” but I’m not very good at it. It makes me squirm to have to turn people down. Just yesterday I found out I was paying for someone else’s electricity for the past two months, a mistake that was made by the new utility company we recently joined. They immediately returned the erroneous payment and offered to re-enroll me in the program and start fresh. The deal was the same and, in spite of this horrible experience, I couldn’t say “no.”
This also means that I’m not good at asking for things that may make others feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to put them in a position to have to turn me down, so I may never ask. If you sell Amway products or pest control door-to-door you should hear a siren going off in your head with flashing arrows pointing to me and a sign that screams: SUCKER.
According to an article in the Guardian, a British publication, what I’ve described above are the tell-tale signs of being a “Guesser.” There are two classes or cultures of people: Askers and Guessers. Askers are characterized by asking for what they want, assuming they will be rejected or declined if the other party doesn’t consent. For example, an Asker would have no problem asking a waiter for a different table because “this one doesn’t have a nice view.” Likewise, Askers tend to ask for raises, time off, and favors from others more often than Guessers. An Asker wouldn’t hesitate to ask you to cover their shift, assuming you would simply decline if you didn’t want to.
Guessers, on the other hand, avoid asking for things that may lead to rejection…they are generally intuitive and rely on that intuition to guide them in the things they ask for, even if their intuition may be misleading or incorrect. Guessers would typically not ask for a new table at a restaurant because they would assume that the waiter would have seated them at a different table if it were available. Guessers avoid articulating a desire or need unless they’re almost certain the answer will be “yes.” According to the article, Guessers are hardwired with “delicate feelers” that can be sent out to hint at what is needed, ideally prompting an offer without having to ask. Guessers pick up extra shifts because they may not be able to say “no,” but rarely cash in a similar favor, preferring to not “rock the boat.”
It is important to note that there is no right way to be: there are benefits and drawbacks to both. Askers could be viewed as fearless or as bullish. Guessers could be marked as intuitive or spineless. As with anything, your style depends on what you do with it.
So why is this important? This theory, if true, could change the way you see the world. In fact, your type could enhance or undermine your opportunities for success. As an Asker, you may be more prone to ask for what you need and go after it. In contrast, as a Guesser you may never go after something that is attainable, believing that it would find its way to you if it was meant to be. I have suffered from this from time to time. In fact, I still have a difficult time being self-promoting or selling services that could be valuable to others, believing they would ask for it if they wanted it.
In addition, this theory could also explain how you can more effectively navigate the relationships around you. For example, my wife is an avid Asker and I am a prolific Guesser. For us, this means that I rely on her to make the difficult phone calls, like canceling contracts and requesting favors from service providers. She seems to relish in the awkward moments, perpetually asking for a handout or kickback, while I hang embarrassed in the background, fidgeting and looking for an exit. (For example, in Chicago last week my wife asked for a free room upgrade…uncomfortable. She got denied, but ended up with two free workout passes valued at $15 each.) Likewise, as a Guesser, I am hyper-aware that I have to ask for what I need in our relationship. This may also mean that I can sense the mood of a business encounter before my wife enters the awkward realm, and even have a good idea of the direction the conversation may go.
Lastly, this knowledge could be integral to leadership. If you’re an Asker leading a group of Guessers, your people may never say “no.” This could result in burnout or lack of accountability. Your followers may also struggle with a sense of ownership, mindlessly fulfilling your requests without ever offering ideas or tapping creativity. On the flip side, a Guesser leading Askers may never ask for what is needed to move an organization or initiative forward, assuming their followers are intrinsically motivated to contribute what is needed.
So which one are you? (Realistically, we are all probably a bit of both depending on the circumstance, but we probably also have a dominant style.) How has this played out in the past, say, 24 hours?
Drop a note in the comments. And, if you liked the article, spread the word using the share buttons below. (I’m asking, not guessing…)
My wife must think I’m nuts. And I probably am.
Six years ago my daughter, Halle, was born. At the time I was working at a public relations agency, plowing ahead in a job that I really disliked. So I quit. With a one-month old baby. And no job to go to.
At the time it seemed totally rational. If I knew what I was doing wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go, then why waste another day in it? To add to the insanity, we loaded a moving truck, picked a random city, and moved. Our truck broke down in New Mexico on the way to our new destination (in 100+ degree August heat) but we eventually arrived. We signed an apartment lease sight-unseen and I scrounged up a job a few weeks after we got there. We used whatever savings we had to move and get settled before I started reining in a $12 an hour paycheck working customer service at Overstock.com. Looking back, this is what it took for me to find my passion — drastic measures. In fact, it may not have happened any other way.
Since then we’ve moved all over the country, with each job getting us closer to a goal that still remains a bit unclear. I’m a firm believer that doing what you love will get you where you want to be. But I’ve always felt a bit guilty for dragging my wife and family from place to place. And then I read about this guy:
Wait of the world
He completed a “World Triathlon” that he designed because he’s passionate about…being crazy, I suppose. But he also sold his house and car, used their $60,000 savings, and took out a $100,000 loan to do it. I think he’s nuts, and yet, I can relate. Sometimes discovering your passion requires a significant course correction. But sometimes, in fact most times, it doesn’t.
Discovering your passion, what makes you unique, should not always spur an immediate shift from what you are doing to what you could be doing. In fact, Dave Ramsey, the famed financial guru, suggests that there are really only a few good reasons to leave one job without having another lined up: unethical behavior at work, illegal activity, and/or sexual harassment. According to Dave, having a lack of passion or energy for what you are currently doing is not a valid reason to quit with nowhere to go. However, you should use your current situation as motivation to begin to play to your talents and strengths more frequently and to initiate a plan that will gradually move you away from what draws energy from you and more toward what gives you energy. Keep your day job, but use whatever “free” time you have to volunteer for opportunities to use your strengths. Better yet, use your strengths at work. Find ways to maximize your talents. Then, when the time is right, make the shift from your day job to the job you really want to do.
At the end of the day, the goal is congruence: a state of agreement between who you are and what you do. But achieving this state doesn’t always need to be dramatic. The man’s wife from the article, Cate, pinpointed the goal: “I think that’s everybody’s challenge in life,” she says. “Doing what you love, chasing your passions and yet being there for your family at the same time. I want him to find this balance.”
My goal is to find that balance as well, and to help others do the same.
This isn’t a blog about how to subsist on beans and rice while doing what you love. That may be what it takes to get your dream off the ground, but the end goal is be financially prosperous while living your passion. It’s definitely possible.
Almost daily I read a story about someone who has achieved some degree of financial success and prosperity by doing what they love. Today I read a great blog post by Mark Cuban, owner of the World Champion Dallas Mavericks (and, fittingly, perhaps the last World Champion we’ll see for a while given the lockout). Now, I’m not a Mark Cuban fan per se…he’s got the same weird hair thing that Donald Trump and Nicolas Cage have going on. But he did front the cash for our winning team, so I’ve got to give him his propers.
That said, in his post on How to Get Rich he offered two tips for acquiring wealth. If they worked for him and his billions of dollars they may just boost your wealth potential. First, save every penny you can. Cuban’s not a fan of investing or the stock market, believing that cash is king. Whether you agree or not, the idea is that those with some cash in savings will be more open to opportunities that may arise, whatever they may be. Scrimp and save, living well below your means, and sock away your cash in CDs or a savings account.
Second, get smart. Invest your time in yourself and grow your knowledge. Cuban’s story is an interesting one that I’ll cover at another time, but the short version is that he went from knowing nothing about computers to studying computer manuals and becoming a specialist. Specialists were in high demand and the opportunities popped up. He took advantage of those opportunities, started a company, made a few wise investments with cash he had on hand, and made a billion dollars (and bought the Mavericks). He says there are a ton of people in every industry that could be just as successful but never will be because they won’t put in the necessary work to become an expert! Attend conferences, meetings, trade shows, read books, go to classes, take jobs…whatever you can do to learn the trade. Find something you love and immerse yourself in it.
Which leads us to the last (unofficial) step, which is to wait. Simply be patient and look for times of uncertainty, change, and demand in your industry. Then capitalize! When the time is right, you will have positioned yourself with industry knowledge and experience, and cash for flexibility. It only takes one moment to “get lucky.”
Are there other steps you would add? Is Cuban dead on or blowing smoke? Drop a note in the comments and let me know what you think! I’ll be sure to let him know when he drops the trophy by my house for a stint.
Hi! I'm Dustin.
I post here once a week on Tuesdays, every week, at 4:59am. You can also sign up below to have these posts magically air-dropped straight to your inbox.