Can you strive for excellence and still be happy?

Mediocrity. Have a taste of the word. How does it feel to you? What associations do you have with this label?

Pity? Aversion? Disdain? Or even fear? Do you fear mediocrity?

This is a word I sometimes come across in sales pages for different online or digital products. Used as the worst case negative scenario if you don’t buy what they sell, or the emotional trigger word used to entice you to move into action.

“You don’t want to stay mediocre, do you? Come, buy our product and you too can move from mediocrity to excellence”

Mediocre in this sense meaning someone average. Nothing special.

When I look up synonyms for the word mediocre, I get “average, common, adequate, ordinary, unremarkable, unexciting, forgettable, amateur, inferior”. These all range from neutral to outright negative connotations.

Nobody wants to be forgettable. We all want to be special.

But if everyone strives to be above average, and successfully raise the levels of the things we do, doesn’t it by definition just mean that the consequence is that the common average level has risen too? So now that same average is just at a higher point objectively, but we are all still average together?

The problem here is that average is used as a comparison, which somehow implies a competitiveness and rivalry about the top spot. That it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, objectively speaking, as long as you are better than your peers.

With this perspective, the strive for excellence has little to do with mastering and getting better at something for it’s own sake. The goal of excellence becomes more about rising above the crowd of average-ness and being seen. To become a Somebody in a sea of Nobody-s.

Being mediocre with this perspective means being just like everybody else. Which I think is what the sales page wants to allure to – buy their thing and become better/different/go further than your competition.

However, there’s another meaning to the words mediocre and average. And that is the meaning of “good enough”. Not outright bad, and not extraordinarily great, but good enough. Nothing special, but it does the job and it works.

And if you seek excellence in everything you do, “good enough” is never good enough.

Excellence, as an opposition of mediocrity, is one of my own core values. It’s so ingrained in my character that I don’t think I could remove it if I tried.

I don’t see it as a comparison of my peers though. It’s not about being better than others, it’s not about gaining recognition or praise. Perhaps at one point when I was growing up there was an element of that to it, but by now striving for excellence is more of a life stance and general approach I have than anything else.

If we look at the etymology of the word itself, ‘ex-‘ means ‘beyond’ and celsus comes from ‘cello’ which means ‘to rise’. So the literal meaning of the word is to rise beyond. One of the meanings of the latin ‘excello’ is ‘I elevate’.

To me, excellence is about striving to make everything I do not just good, but great. To not stop with something until it’s the highest quality I can produce. Whatever it may be – writing code, writing words, dancing, telling a story, or even hobbies like gardening or crafting. I constantly aspire to elevate the level of what I do.

This drive is a double-edged sword. Striving for excellence means that you never want to settle for “good enough”. There’s always something more to be done, there’s always something to improve. You can always become better.

So somewhere hidden in this constant effort for betterment lies the seed of discontent. Where the “good enough” of mediocrity is not good enough for you. Your standards are higher than that – in fact they might even be impossible to fulfil.

Since you don’t want to settle for “good enough”, it is easy to judge what you have done so far to automatically be “not good enough” as well. The constant effort for betterment becomes a constant source of discontent. There’s always something more to be done. You are never finished.

This is when striving for excellence turns into a source of unhappiness. Never feeling enough, always pushing for more and more and more. In the world of constant improvement, there’s nothing like good enough to stop.

I’ve fallen into this trap in the past. In fact, it was a contributing factor in my burnout that I had to address. I had to learn what good enough means – in any context – and to be satisfied with it. My drive towards excellence was driving me into the ground. That had to stop.

The solution is moving from an either/or thinking where you choose between average with satisfaction or high quality with dissatisfaction, towards a yes/and thinking where you can both be satisfied with where you are and still work to improve and get better.

The difference lies in the reason you want to improve.

To improve oneself because you’re dissatisfied with your current result is one thing. But it’s another thing entirely to be happy about where you are, and improve because you are curious about what’s on the other side. Because it’s fun to learn things, to become better, to become more confident and comfortable with your skills. It’s fun to evolve.

In this perspective, constant improvement means constant exploration. You came this far – awesome! Can you come even further? That’s awesome too! You are injecting much more fun and enjoyment into your life if you don’t hold yourself to impossible standards.

There were many parts of my journey of contentment, but one important thing involved learning to be satisfied when something is adequate. When it does the job, with a decent quality.

This means that all time and effort I can dedicate beyond this point is a bonus and a gift. I love making things better. I love going above and beyond. By being content with a merely satisfactory work, I was able to see and appreciate all the times when I could go further.

And if I stretched myself for that extra mile but failed, well then I could fall back to the fact that at least what I had done so far was passable.

Somehow, lowering my standards of acceptance did not mean that I would produce lower quality work. In fact it meant that I could enjoy more the quality that I was achieving.

This whole new mindset depends of course on that you’re one of those people who don’t stop once you reach the acceptable base level. I know I am one of those. And I think you know if you are too.

If you’re one of those that look at others and become restless when you see them settle with a “good enough” mentality, stopping way before they reach the limit of their capacity. Or annoyed when someone don’t seem to do their best work, when you see that they could do more but they don’t seem to care. Then you’re probably like me in this regard.​

I don’t care so much about mediocrity in the sense that I want to be better than anybody else. No, I want to be as good as I can get – irrespective of the placement in relationship to others.

Perhaps the best of my ability won’t reach much above the average level in a certain field. This is indeed rather likely. But I still want to pursue my personal excellence, even though somebody else’s light might shine brighter than mine in that particular area.

It’s not so much about comparison, and not about judgement of the past. But I can strive for excellence in life and still be happy and content with where I am. By accepting my mediocrity and continuing to elevate beyond.

Perhaps I won’t rise above any of my peers. I won’t be outstanding or gain any external recognition. But I’ll have much more fun and enjoyment in my life, which matters more in the long run.

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