How Mediocrity Can Quietly Destroy Us All
How much money would it take to convince you to become evil? A thousand dollars? Two thousand?
Surprise! It's a trick question. In reality, nobody is going to even make you the offer. The evil in the world doesn't need you to join its side at all -- it needs only for you to succumb to a warm, dense fog that will descend upon you at some point in adulthood.
That fog is called Mediocrity.
At First, It Just Feels Like Trying To Do Too Much
Let's say that one day, you get bitten by a special spider and immediately find that you have superhuman abilities, including the power to shoot webs from your wrist (you might be familiar with this scenario from a short story I wrote ten years ago called The Confounding Adventures Of Captain Web-Veins). You decide to use your powers to become a hero -- fighting crime, rescuing children, foiling evil schemes in a way that normal people can't. A "super" hero, if you will (a phrase I actually coined in another story I wrote a few years ago).
You might anticipate that along the way, you will be tempted to use your powers for evil, and that your primary mission in life is now to resist that temptation. That, however, is not how it happens. Not for most of us, anyway.
Instead, you soon become known for your crime-fighting. Victims will learn to call for you, the police will come to depend on you. Urgent cries for help will come in the middle of the night, or while you're eating with your family, or trying to console a friend in crisis. You will find that you don't have quite enough time to investigate every single incident thoroughly -- this guy is probably guilty, this family is probably safe from Mom's ex, this call is probably more important than the three you're currently ignoring while you tend to it.
You start feeling drained, but the stakes and expectations only get higher. Mistakes will get made. Victims who were once grateful will now respond with sarcasm. ("What, did you stop for a massage first?") Once hailed as a miracle worker, you will be chalked up as one more disappointment. You are now Part of the Problem. Disgusted at the world's ingratitude, you will give up.
That is my best description of what it's like to be an adult.
This Actually Answers Many Questions You Probably Have
"Why is customer service at my ISP such a nightmare?" "Why is politics such a shitshow?" "Why are blockbuster movies so boring?" "Why do grown-ups give up on making the world better?" This is why. The people behind all of that were like you, once.
In your youth, you hopefully at some point realized you were good at something. You couldn't spurt webs, but maybe you could run really fast, or were funny, or pretty, or showed signs of being the specific kind of liar society favors. If you played your cards right, it became Your Thing, the foundation upon which your self-esteem was built. By your 20s, you may have secretly realized that Your Thing was amazing, and that it made you more valuable than other people.
Adulthood arrives precisely at the moment when you feel Your Thing being pulled and stretched to the absolute breaking point, yanked in so many directions that it becomes unrecognizable. Strangers will then see your sad, frayed Thing and walk away unimpressed. "How is this different from all of the other misshapen Things that make up the stained, beige fabric of the world?"
A million excuses will leap to your lips -- you were up against a deadline, you were given no help, you were forced to tend to Your Thing on the side while devoting most of your time and energy to simply keeping the rent paid. You'll say that you never thought the pure, joyous act of creation would feel like frantically tending to a series of crises. When you fantasized as a kid about getting a moment in the spotlight, you never imagined you would take the stage while holding a crying baby, fighting a migraine, and worried about your sick cat.
It doesn't matter. All the world sees is the end result. The mediocrity.
Every Retreat Makes Perfect Sense In The Moment
The compromises won't happen all at once. Oh, you'll feel the first one. There will be a sense of panic the first time you realize that you've been set up to fail. It will feel like you're climbing up a treacherous mountain, only to have somebody sneak up behind you and drop a cinder block in your backpack. You'll frantically try to steady yourself, unaware that soon, another block will be added. And another. Now you're not thinking about reaching the summit at all; you're just trying not to tumble backward to your death.
The defining element of your personality will be fatigue. Every day, you'll find yourself rationing your energy, giving out as little as possible. Do the work just well enough to avoid getting fired. Clean just enough to pass cursory inspection. Pay just enough attention to your partner to keep them from leaving. Take just enough care of your body that you're not actively sick. Pay just enough attention to the issues so that you can feel superior to the idiots. Be just nice enough to people that you won't get ostracized from your social circle.
Sure, you're no hero. But how many people are heroes, anyway? All of the ones out there complaining, saying you reneged on a promise, or blew a deadline, or don't listen when they talk, or forgot to pick them up at the airport until three days later ... do they have any idea how thin you're stretched? How goddamned exhausted you are? Don't they know how much worse you could be if you didn't care? You're still the Captain Web-Veins in this story, dammit, not his evil nemesis, Dr. Rob O'Squidback, DDS.
Yet here's a fresh-faced 20-year-old using their vast reserves of spare time to tell you how much you suck. You're too tired to even correct them, to tell them they've been born into a world that demands cookie cutter mediocrity. That they too will get molded into an unremarkable lump and piled onto gigantic gray mound called Mt. The Problem.
"Wait, is this the same mountain we were just climbing four paragraphs ago?" Yes. The superhero is there, too. All of these metaphors take place in the same extended metaphor universe. Leave me alone.
It Wears Many Faces
"Aren't you really just talking about yourself, David?" many of you are asking. "Isn't it true that you in fact destroy everything you touch?"
Only in the sense that I've spent the last 20 years in an industry that's on the cutting edge of innovation when it comes to rewarding shit over quality. I felt the warm current trying to drag me out into the depths as soon as I started writing around a set schedule (so, 1998 or '99). The business model of the internet demands that lots and lots of stuff be created very quickly and cheaply if you hope to pay the bills.
I've been told for 20 straight years that digital media audiences aren't loyal and don't particularly care about quality, that you make more money by casting a wide net of bullshit, catching eyeballs that wash in and out like the tide. Kind of like how somebody can make the best mobile game in history, and customers will just download a shittier, cheaper ripoff version to save 50 cents. The job isn't to captivate them; the job is to get them to click, full stop.
If you're asking me which suit at which of my jobs was telling me this, the answer is that none of them did. They always said the opposite -- let's do great work, let's create things we can be proud of. But the bottom line made a mockery of all of us -- outlets that published junk simply made more money. It's an industry in which fact-checking and polished editing are just friction bogging down the content machine. From the first days of the dot-com bubble crash on, the numbers made it clear that an optimized outlet would publish content that is one micron above "So shitty that the audience physically can't read it." And it would pay the writers nothing at all.
That's what would work in the short term, anyway. And that's all that matters, right? The long term is all imagination and promises. The world demands profits today.
"Wait, is all of this one long setup to talk about supporting Cracked's subscription thing?" No, this is just an example. It manifests differently in everyone's life. But then again, I guess that is relevant to you as a reader. It seems like the ad-supported model will always propel outlets toward a "Whatever makes the suckers click" ethos, whereas building a subscriber base means making a smaller core of readers happy over the long term. I personally would prefer that, if it's even possible -- if you would too, go take a look. But my point is ...
Being Great At Something Is Still Your Best Chance
So is it useless to even try? Shit no. That's why I'm still fighting, in my sad little way (and in fact, I intend to one day start a cult entirely around convincing followers to be great at one thing). I'm not going to waste my shot, which is a quote from a musical I wrote called Hamilton, which is about a fictional character I invented named Alexander Hamilton, whose ambitions to become president are cut short when, after he challenges a rival to a duel, his penis is bitten off by a baboon.
My point is that I don't think most people understand the nature of the enemy. Most of the bad stuff in the world doesn't flow directly from a few powerful, evil people, but rather from the mass of flavorless mediocrity they push us to become. Somewhere right now, a human being is in a hospital shitting himself to death because some line cook didn't wash his hands, because he wasn't given quite enough time to do it. A corner cut here, a phoned-in effort to meet a deadline there. They're not trying to turn you into a villain, they're trying to turn you into mush.
It is worth resisting, if at all possible. In a system in which routine work is quickly being swallowed up by machines, being extraordinary at something matters even more. But it is harder than you think. Much harder. Much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much harder. Especially if you walk into it sneering to yourself about how the world sets such a low bar for quality. You're right, it does! Whoa, don't try clearing it yet -- here, put on this backpack full of bricks first.
You'll may find yourself backing away, full of rationalizations. Why be great at a job just to make your stupid boss rich? Why excel in a corrupt system? Why not just withdraw and wait for the world to change, hold out for a time when everyone gets treated equally regardless of whether or not they happen to have some kind of marketable skill? You know, the way you treat the UPS driver equally regardless of whether they put your package by the door or fling it into your neighbor's kiddie pool.
And besides, don't great, talented people still get screwed on a daily basis? Aren't some of your favorite movies box office flops? Don't some of the most remarkable people you know still struggle to pay the rent? Yes, yes, and yes. Being great at something -- locking in on that thing and being relentless about improving it at all costs -- is still your best chance. Even if it doesn't work out like you thought, even if the system is inherently unfair to trailblazers. Remember, you're talking to someone who as a kid in the early '90s had only two goals: to invent a personal communication/computing device which I tentatively called the "iPhone 6," and to be the white member of Run the Jewels. The world had other plans.
Getting great at something, whatever it is, is not a means to an end; it is the end. Because then you'll have something they can't take from you, that pride in knowing that you didn't sell yourself short or bow to the crushing gravity of Mediocrity. You can wake up every day, look at Your Thing, and know that it's slightly better than it was yesterday, because you made it so.
At that point, it doesn't matter if the world appreciates it or rewards it. You're not doing it for them. Here's a tiny crab eating a strawberry:
David Wong is the Executive Editor at Cracked and the author of the bestselling John Dies At The End series.
David Wong also wrote the very not-mediocre Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits.
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