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The Lure of Mediocrity
Embracing Mediocrity Comes At A Price
Growing up, I played the trumpet.
As one of the only women in the trumpet section, I enjoyed being one of the best. I loved fighting for first chair with a kid named Kevin and having my band directors praise me for being a rising star.
My sophomore year of high school, I fell from grace.
A new band director took over and was not impressed by me. In tryouts, I slipped on a note and was condemned to last chair. I was bitter and felt misunderstood. At the same time, I was seated next to the only other woman in the trumpet section, my best friend Amanda. We’d giggle and gossip in between boring harmonies and roll our eyes at the men who seemed to take themselves too seriously.
I rationalized that I was happy in last chair. I had no desire to pursue a degree or career in music. I didn’t feel encouraged by my band director. So I figured there was no harm in staying in the back.
When I was last chair, I lied to myself and was convinced I was still great at playing the trumpet. I rationalized that I was taking private lessons, and in my free time I played in the county's youth symphony orchestra. But as time went on, the gap between my perceived status and actual skill grew and grew.
I stayed in last chair and Kevin kept getting better, eventually becoming our section leader.
I didn’t challenge myself so I didn’t get better. I wasn’t getting better, so I fell behind. Soon, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I wasn’t the victim of one mistake. I was mediocre.
My senior year, I dropped band. I told my band director I needed to make space for AP classes but I knew in my heart that I was no longer excited to show up every day and play.
There’s a certain lure to mediocrity. Like a siren’s sweet song, it’s called to me many times, entrapping me over and over again.
I’ve recognized this pattern in myself, whether it’s playing the trumpet or settling in my sales career. I start out doing pretty well and something knocks me down. My pride is initially hurt by the setback, but instead of continuing to work hard, I realize that I don’t have to work hard and risk feeling disappointed again. Instead, I can embrace the comfort and safety of mediocrity.
Mediocrity is tempting because there are no expectations for people in the middle. Not bad enough to be eliminated, and not good enough to be promoted, these are the people that band directors and later in life, managers, didn’t have the time to focus on.
At my first sales job, I rested at a similar state of mediocrity. After about 3 years, I was comfortable and had no desire to mess that up. I realized that if I tried to get promoted, I would be forced to chase the dangling carrots set up by my bosses. If I hit 100% of my quota, no more no less, I rationalized that I was still a good worker. I told myself this was great. I could enjoy my life, travel, party and eat out every night without taking my job too seriously.
In year 4 and 5, I became bored with my job. I was impatient with my clients because their problems were so predictable. I played around with the idea with going for a promotion, but I had already solidified my reputation as being fine, but not great and there was a long line of people ahead of me.
I decided to move from San Francisco and with that change, find a new job. I chose a company that was known for sales excellence. From the beginning, I was excited by the challenge and the atmosphere of pushing yourself.
Going from a company that was comfortable to one that pushed me was a tough transition.
My team had problems from the start, my manager was let go after six months, and my new manager made it clear that he didn’t have much faith in my ability to succeed in the role. When he told me I should be interviewing, I double downed and pushed myself to work harder. I thought I was working hard when I had started the job, but nothing compared to my work ethic when I doubled down and spent many extra hours honing my skills.
I did get better. I got shout outs from my managers, won little challenges and even started helping my peers. It was too little too late though and I still lost my job.
Strangely, even though that was easily one of the most stressful periods of my career, I felt really good about myself. It had been many years before I had challenged myself to improve, to put in the hard work instead of settling for mediocrity.
Realizing that I had this capability, a second thought creeped into my mind. Why was I working so hard at this specifically? To become a sales rockstar? Sales was a career I fell into, desperate for a full time job and health insurance after I graduated college.
I learned so many great things, but I had dreamt about writing since I was a young girl. I graduated college thinking I’d find a job writing for some company but struggled, got scared and chose a stable career instead.
Moving up the corporate ladder was never my dream. In some ways, choosing a “stable” career was another way I had settled in my life. Losing my job, I saw exactly how “stable” that career was. I decided to take a break from the corporate world to get back in touch with my real desires. This time, I knew I could tap into the ability to work hard and deal with any setbacks.
And the setbacks did come. I struggled to get started. Shockingly, it’s easier to tap into an intense (and anxious) work mode when you think you’re going to lose your job. I had a lot of negative thoughts and wondered if I could ever have enough discipline to even publish one essay.
But I also knew that if I pursued the thing that got me excited, I could find the discipline. I had learned in my last sales job that it’s a muscle to be built like anything else.
During my sabbatical, I learned about the relationship between taking action and confidence. I found it hard to believe in myself before I got started. But I realized that if I could get myself to start, even without the full belief in myself, the confidence would likely follow.
So I started a podcast with my sister. I started writing a piece here and there. I took a writing course and promised myself that I would lean into it 100%. No more mediocre. Not in the thing that was most important to me.
I published weekly for months, and ironically, my own success burnt me out. I took a break, but I wasn’t even worried that a break would be a setback for me. Unlike playing the trumpet, or my career in sales, I was willing to work through any problems. Sure, I’m probably a bit wiser than I was before, but I also think part of it is being in alignment. I have no desire to settle for mediocrity in this realm.
Looking back at my life, the downsides of embracing mediocrity are more clear to me.
In choosing to be average, to do less than what I was capable of, I reinforced this negative belief in myself without even realizing it. I tried to lie to myself and say I wasn’t mediocre, I was simply not trying. At the end of the day, it had the same negative effect.
I know too, that you can’t be the top 1% at everything. To be the best takes a lot of time, energy and money. Part of my issue was that I was investing a lot of my energy in the wrong places. I did a lot of things I felt like I should do, even though I always had a strong inclination for something else. When things got difficult, I had no enthusiasm to push myself.
Every experience teaches us something. Without having my job at risk, I wouldn’t have remembered that I had the capacity to work hard. I’m grateful for everything I learned in sales. I also realized that I had spent years in this field avoiding going after my real dreams. I wanted to be creative. I wanted to write. Now, I am doing those things.
I know there’s always going to be a temptation to choose a more comfortable path. For me, that is the more dangerous path.
Tie me to the mast as the ship passes, I no longer want to answer the siren’s call of mediocrity.
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