Strive for Mediocrity

At the school where I teach I have a colleague who likes to tell us that we are the best at what we do. It gets on my nerves. I think we’re pretty good. Maybe we are the best. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is something unseemly about saying such a thing out loud. It’s a little like a pretty woman or a handsome man telling you that they are good looking. If it’s really true, it should be obvious. Besides, what if the people who hear you say such a thing aren’t so bad looking themselves?

A few years ago we invited someone from another school with a mission similar to ours to give a series of lectures. This colleague of mine was running through his usual litany, saying that we were the premier school in this speaker’s particular discipline. “You know, we don’t do so badly ourselves” the speaker finally replied, in that patient but slightly irritated way people have when they are reminding you of the obvious.

I realize that I am saying here is out of step with the culture. We live the age of vision and confidence. We have been told since childhood that we are unique and above average. We are all destined for greatness. I often see this in churches and Christian organizations. I have yet to find one that says that it’s just run of the mill.

I can see that the same is often true of me. When I was a pastor, I could never understand why some people who visited our little church would choose to attend anywhere else. They certainly wouldn’t find better preaching there. I am always astonished when a publisher rejects my idea. I feel hurt when a student drops my class. I usually figure that the problem is with them. They just don’t recognize greatness when they see it.

There is an ancient word for this kind thinking and it’s not confidence. It is what the ancients called hubris or pride. Instead of being the secret to success, the ancients considered hubris to be the fountainhead of all other sins. Of course, to modern ears this kind of talk sounds like a return to worm theology. We don’t want to view ourselves with contempt. We don’t think it’s healthy. Spend too much time talking like that and in twenty years you’ll find yourself in therapy working on your adequacy issues. But I suspect that a little self-contempt might actually be good for us. If not contempt, then at least we might leave room for just a smidgen of self-doubt.

Years ago Avis, the car rental company, launched an advertising campaign built around the idea that they weren’t the best in the business. Their slogan was, “We’re number two; we try harder.” I don’t know how it made their employees feel but as far as marketing went, it was a stroke of genius. There was also a measure of wisdom in their slogan. The trouble with being the best is that it removes any room for improvement. What is more, being the best at something is usually a moving target. Ask any record holding athlete who has seen their accomplishment surpassed by some up and comer. In a way, when you’re the best, you’re never really the best. Somebody is always gunning for you. Sooner or later they will overtake you.

Oh sure, being the best has some value when it comes to ego. But if we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that it’s probably not a realistic assessment for most of us. Being the best is certainly not a good position to be in, if you are aiming for significant improvement. If you really are the best, well then, I suppose the most you can hope for is to maintain the status quo. Either way, we should probably opt for a new goal. Here’s one to consider: strive for mediocrity. It always leaves room for improvement.

5 thoughts on “Strive for Mediocrity

  1. Very early in my time as a pastor my wife and I entertained one of her college track coaches for a weekend. In talking with him I said “I will never tell my congregation I work as hard as them.” He was blown away. How could anyone ever say that don’t work as hard – much less harder- than anyone else. The good Protestant has the Protestant work ethic after all, right? Now, before someone gets to thinking I am critical of this coach, or that he was being harsh– his reaction was 90% non verbal.

    I had to explain to him that I find it arrogant to claim to work harder than others. Sure, my average week may consist of 50 hours, but is that really that bad? I might even log a couple of 70 hour weeks. Is that really anything to boast about? Do I want to tell the farmer during harvest that I understand what it feels like to work hard, when he has just put in 120 hours? Do I want to tell the funeral home director that I know what it feels like not to sleep much that week when he has had 4 calls in the middle of the night that week?

    I loved my time at Moody. I truly do believe it is the best college in the world. But why I loved being a student was the humility and compassion which came alongside the teaching of Scripture. One professor gave the quote (which might be apocryphally ascribed to C S Lewis… since he is the source of all modern wisdom, right?) “If something is worth doing, then it is worth doing poorly.” If we cannot do something unless we do it perfectly, then we will never do it at all.

    As always, thanks for the post!

  2. My folks were from North Louisiana. If you understand the culture, that’s saying a great deal. With plenty of denial, secrets to be kept, and people taking justice into their own hands, an uneasy tension existed with some hypersensitive egos. To offset this, conversations contained plenty of vain flattery. Your story reminded me of this trait. Cheer leadering gets old and often mistaken for leadership. Been guilty of it myself. Hope I’ve turned the corner of repentance on that one.

    1. I hear you, Elizabeth. I know that it’s important for leaders to affirm but affirmation sometimes becomes one of those methods that leaders use to get results. Cheap praise and self-congratulation are never a good idea. Thanks for reading & commenting!

  3. I really enjoyed hearing you discuss this on The Ride Home with John and Kathy this past Tuesday. Thanks for taking the time to be on their show on a regular basis. It’s great to hear a Moody prof here in Pittsburgh!

    MBI Class of 1988

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