A reason to be excellent
We're wired for survival. But if near-term survival is close to guaranteed? What then?
It's never been easier to be mediocre. Just do the bare minimum at your job, and then spend the rest of your time scrolling or watching something. Done. A shallow existence without meaning or real merit to society.
I dread to think how many people would fit the description above. I know I do, from time to time in a moment of weakness. Yet, I believe deep down we yearn for something better. Deep down, we know there's more to life than splashing through the shallows. We dream of setting sail on a mighty galleon and going on an adventure.
But in order to set sail, we need to find a reason to do so. To take the metaphor further, imagine you're on an island like Robinson in his 10th or 15th year perhaps. You have shelter, you have your routine, some animals to take care of. You're comfortable. Yet, you know you're stuck. Unlike Robinson, however, you can see a land in the distance. You know that with a month, two, or three of effort, you could build a vessel to carry you to that distant land. But again, you're comfortable as you are. Deep down you know you want to leave the island, but you don't have a clear reason to. So, what is the reason to build your boat?
Let's set the metaphor aside now and return to reality.
The question is, if you are comfortable as you are, but you want to reach your potential, whatever that may mean for you, what's the impulse? What's the reason to not remain mediocre, but reach for excellence?
Like with many such inquiries, I think the question is more important than whatever my answer to it may be. However, I'll share some thoughts.
There are many reasons to be excellent. Some do it because of a mimetic competition. They want to beat someone else, be superior. There's a big downside to unmanaged competitive dynamics, largely consisting in making us act like others to "win", but against our own nature.
Others seek excellence because they have to. They happen to be in circumstances where being mediocre just will not cut it. In some sense, those people are lucky because we tend to adapt to our environment, and if our environment demands excellence, we will develop it. One example of this is the world of hedge funds. Many financiers are extraordinarily clear thinkers because they have to be. They have to be smarter than the majority of people about a particular bet in order to make money. That kind of environment drives people to excel (or Excel?).
And, finally, some people reach for excellence because it's satisfying, on a profound level. It feels good to be excellent, it feels good to make excellent things, it feels good to approach the ideal of perfection. This is the way of the artist.
I fear many people won't ever see it as a possible path now, since it does take time and effort to develop a skill enough to experience a glimpse of excellence. Excellence requires depth of conviction and focus, overcoming inertia by building momentum in a specific direction, all the while resisting the ever more comforting pull of mediocrity.
And so we return to the central question of this piece: When you feel the pull of mediocrity, when it makes you sly seemingly satisfying offers, what counter-argument can you provide? What is your reason to be excellent?