Mediocrity

by Robert Gressis

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The following is a research proposal that I’m going to submit for various year-long fellowships. Generally, these fellowships request that you explain what you’re up to in about 1,000 words. I offer it to the EA community for your reactions and advice. Even though it’s already at its limit, any ways in which it might be amplified will also be appreciated.

I also will be submitting each of the four parts to academic conferences.

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I propose to study mediocrity, for two reasons. First, philosophers have talked a lot about excellence, but almost not at all about averageness, so exploring it offers the possibility of breaking new ground. Second, most of us are, in many ways, mediocre. Thus, though exploring excellence offers more guidance, exploring mediocrity promises self-understanding.

With regard to mediocrity, I want to pursue four lines of inquiry. First, what is it? Second, what is it like to be mediocre? Third, what is the relationship between mediocrity and meritocracy? Fourth, will everyone be mediocre in the future?

First question: what is mediocrity? It has both an objective and a subjective sense. Mediocrity in the objective sense is mediocrity relative to a class of things, where there are clear, objective criteria of excellence. For example, a basketball player may be mediocre relative to NBA players and excellent relative to college basketball players. He is objectively excellent relative to college basketball players because he is among the best at the things that college basketball players are trying to do: score field goals, block shots, steal, etc.; but he is objectively mediocre because he is only average at the things that NBA players are trying to do.

In contrast, mediocrity in the subjective sense is mediocrity relative to some person’s desires. For instance, my cat Avon is a subjectively mediocre housecat because he only gives me some of what I want from a pet cat: he is cute, he purrs loudly, and he loves affection, but he hates being picked up, drools a lot, and wakes me up in the middle of the night. That said, for an insomniac who thinks a drooling cat is cute, he is subjectively excellent. (See Rescher 2015.)

One issue remaining after the above contrast is that I still haven’t said what it is to be average at something. For instance, is an NBA player who is good at defense but poor at offense average or not? In other words, does his defensive goodness and his offensive badness neutralize each other, such that he is, overall, average? I say no: to be average at something, you must not cross a certain threshold of skill. The NBA player who is excellent at defense but terrible at offense is not a mediocre NBA player, because defensive excellence is so rare that he is very difficult to replace. In other words, part of what makes you mediocre is how fungible your skill-set is.

Second question: what is it like to be mediocre? More precisely, what is it like to be mediocre at something that matters a lot to your self-image, such as your vocation? Many mediocre people will not acknowledge their mediocrity. If Fred is an average accountant, but thinks being a good accountant is extremely important, he may deceive himself into thinking he’s a good accountant, because the realization that he’s nothing special would be too painful to him.

Being mediocre does not always require self-deception. It is possible to be mediocre with regard to something you care about – your job, your hobby, your intelligence – while being fully aware of it. But this realization seems to usually come with a compensating psychological maneuver to protect your self-esteem. For example, even if Amelia realizes that she’s a mediocre saleswoman, she may quickly add, “but I’m a really good mom”.

Alternatively, someone may admit that he’s mediocre and have no compensating psychological maneuver. If this is his case, then he may respond either with despair or a drive to improve himself, so that he can think of himself as better than others.

All told, there seems to be something difficult to have a “so what?” attitude about one’s own mediocrity, at least if it’s in regard to something you value. Self-esteem, or perhaps even happiness, seems to require you to believe not just that you’re average at things, but that you’re better than most other people in at least some important way (see Wood 1999, 241).

To the extent this is true, it raises concerns about egalitarianism. If people must see themselves as better at important things than others in order to have self-esteem, how wholeheartedly can we value or accept egalitarianism? Does trying to see everyone as morally or socially equal just make us care less about whole-person moral evaluations (e.g., “I’m just as morally good at everyone else, but I’m a great professor!”)? Alternatively, might a belief in moral or social equality induce despair, self-deception, or competitive moral self-improvement? And insofar as people have one of these four reactions to egalitarianism, does it show that they have incorrect or, at least, unstable views about morality?

This leads us to the third question, about the relationship between mediocrity and meritocracy. A meritocracy is a society that doles out social and financial rewards according to merit: the more meritorious you are, the greater the rewards you deserve. Arguably many advanced industrialized nations think of themselves as broadly meritocratic (see Sandel 2020). Although meritocracies are obviously at odds with economically egalitarian societies, does living in a meritocracy lead people to think in ways at odds with moral and social egalitarianism too? And if so, is this a bad thing? Assuming the answer to these questions is yes, what kind of society would we have to become to avoid this kind of thinking? 

Another question meritocracy raises is how to regard people who have only average merit. According to law professor Daniel Markovits, today’s meritocratic elite is harder-working and more productive than any other elite in history (see Markovits 2019, 4). Consequently, not only does such “superordinate” labor reap increasingly greater rewards than the most skilled laborers of the past, but they’re also responsible for a greater share of technological, managerial, and even humanistic progress than past elites. This means average people make less of an overall contribution to progress than they used to, damaging their self-esteem (see Graeber 2018).

However, if boosters of artificial intelligence (AI) are right, then soon enough we will all be such that we cannot make a contribution – all that work will instead be done by AI. This leads to the fourth question: will everyone in the future be mediocre?

One may object that answering this question is otiose, as it is so speculative and far off that we are in no position to provide anything like a well-justified answer. Maybe so, but only if we think of the question in the wrong way. I offer the question as a thought-experiment, one designed to make us figure out what makes one’s life meaningful right now. To put the question in another way: if you know that any contribution you make will be swamped by the contributions of more capable people, then why try to make a contribution? One possibility is that the contributions that add value to your life are those that count as capital-A Achievements. E.g., climbing Mt. Everest is an Achievement, even though climbing Everest doesn’t make anyone else’s life better, and even if you don’t climb it as well as most others.  According to philosopher Gwen Bradford, what makes something an Achievement for you is that it is difficult for you and competently caused by you (see Bradford 2015). Note that to count as an Achievement, something has to be difficult for you. Tying my laces doesn’t count as an Achievement for me, but it would if I were a double amputee.

What these considerations show is that even if AIs could do everything far better than we could – in other words, even if we’re not among the best at what we care about – we can still find satisfaction from pursuing our Achievements. A future in which we are all mediocre does not have to worry us, and nor does a present in which we are mediocre.

Bibliography

Bradford, Gwen (2015). Achievement (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).

Graeber, David (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster).

Markovits, Daniel (2019). The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (New York, NY: Penguin Press).

Rescher, Nicholas (2015). “Excellence Examined”, Mind and Society, vol. 14, p. 85-97.

Sandel, Michael (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Wood, Allen (1999). Kant’s Ethical Thought (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press).

17 thoughts on “Mediocrity

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  1. Good article. Perhaps you should invite active fund financial managers to
    comment, most of whom are only mediocre ,ie. only about 10% or so beat the market. .

    1. Fund managers are an interesting case. On the one hand, I wonder if the 10% who beat the market are just lucky, but on the other hand, I know there are Tetlockian super-forecasters out there who non-accidentally do a lot better at predicting than 99% of people, and over a long period of time. So probably the 90% either don’t have the right approach, or aren’t smart enough, or don’t have the time to employ the right approach, etc. But how are they making a living?

  2. You need something about demand. We need mediocre mailmen (postpeople?) but we don’t need mediocre experts in relativity theory because we need a lot of postpeople but we don’t need a lot of theoretical physicists.

    1. That’s a helpful tip, though I would add that even if we demanded a lot of theoretical physicists, it’s not like we could get many. The amount of intelligence you need to have to do that job well sharply limits supply!

  3. That is an interesting field of study, Robert. I am interested in Q2. I don’t think people are mediocre all the time in things they pursue or that matter to them (I gave up on maths). The performance isn’t rigid. There will be throuphs and the occasional peak. They may be seen by others as average (objectively): I was never the first pick in football, my peers thought I was average. But the performance varies. The occasional peak (subjective) keeps you going. During the 1974 World Cup I scored a goal for my team and was immediately given the nickname ‘Ayala’, after an Argentinian player. That’s why I think you don’t need the “compensating psychological maneuver”. Or perhaps it has a different function – not what you think?

  4. Just about everyone is good at something and wisdom involves learning what one is good at (and enjoys doing, generally they coincide) and avoiding what one is not good at.

    It may take people some time to realize that because they did not receive good feed- back from their parents or their teachers when they were young about where their skills lie or because they were pressured to adopt certain career decisions by their family or by their social group.

    So they may realize where there true skills lie too late to adopt that as a career alternative (although today people can change career later and later in life) and if that is the case, they may have to work professionally at something that is not their thing and to develop their other abilities with family or friends or volunteer work in community projects.

    The important thing is to seek what you feel good about doing, are good at and which others (not necessarily your biological family or your original social circle) recognize in you as a valuable contribution and not worry about conventional ideas about success, the function of which is to preserve the status quo, not to aid you in your search for a good life.

  5. Robert

    You are trying to tell a happy story here, I think. See last two sentences of OP, for example. I can go along with this to a point. Take something that applies or will apply to most of us: getting old and/or dealing with debilitating illness. Holding the line on ordinary activities becomes a challenge. An old or sick person dressing herself — and tying the laces of her shoes — becomes (quite rightly) a big deal. “Mediocrity” as heroic achievement. (This is in line with your intended message as I see it.)

    The word ‘mediocrity’. It has clear negative connotations which you seem to be kicking against (or bouncing off), rhetorically speaking. But you would agree, I assume, that its ordinary use typically involves strong and scornful (if implicit) criticism of certain attitudes (slackness, lack of commitment to excel, etc.). It’s one of those highly charged, weapon-like words that comes into its own in the context of emotionally charged moral (in the broad sense) discourse.

    We (or many of us) seek to excel. And I would say this is good and healthy, though it can become extreme and unhealthy (as the cult of genius — and suicide — did in Wittgenstein’s Vienna). Another way this desire to excel leads to problems is amongst adolescents who very often see themselves as exceptional and have to learn (this is part of growing up) that they are not. Or at least that excelling, being exceptional, is always a work in progress (dynamic rather than static).

    You mention “compensating psychological maneuvers” but I would perhaps emphasize this side of things more; in particular the psychological tricks we play which help us feel good about ourselves. [My understanding is that there is solid research which shows that normal, non-depressed individuals routinely rate their own good qualities and abilities higher than others rate them — in other words have a “false” view of themselves — whereas depressed individuals see themselves more accurately (i.e. more in line with how others see them): self-deception as an essential part of mental health?]

    1. Mark, these are interesting and important observations. I would encourage Robert to do a bit of a deeper dive into the myriad uses of ‘mediocre’ and ‘mediocrity’ though I do think it useful to interrogate the negative connotation philosophically.

    1. What do you mean? Are you saying that we have devalued mediocrity? Or that how we use language affects who counts as mediocre? I’m just not following.

  6. In your 1st question, you do not go back enough to the basics. Why does mediocrity have an objective and subjective meaning? Because this meaning is rooted in the individuation/collectivization conflict. Mediocrity, like excellence, is a distance between individual achievement and the collective ideal. Performance grows in mediocrity when its distance increases with the ideal. It grows in excellence when its distance increases with raw ignorance. The difference is a direction of look, that of the collective ideal towards the individual (rate of mediocrity) or the opposite (rate of excellence).

    Since there is no collective brain, the conflict actually occurs between the representations of the collective and the self, in each brain. There is therefore only subjective mediocrity and excellence, in the absolute. Objectivity is relative to the number of subjectivities that converge on the same reference.

    If the sense of mediocrity is only an intrinsic direction of look, then it depends on the balance of power, in the mind, between self and non-self. Those who live in such balance know the feeling of mediocrity. If they think like I just did, that feeling is considered normal.

    Those who have an imbalance do not experience mediocrity. The absolute power of the self makes the solipsist. The absolute power of non-self makes the eliminativist; only the material world and the social collective exist; the individual spirit fades away. In both cases there is no distance between self and non-self. The two are confused. No conflict, no mediocrity. Only the satisfaction, with little contrast, of being (almost) the whole world.

  7. I offer myself as a specimen for the study of mediocrity. On looks, intelligence, athleticism, etc.

    As you mentioned in your proposal, I might be hiding the ball on my true opinion of myself or on my compensating virtues. As a native of the Upper South, college educated middle class with one foot still in the blue-collar red state reality of my entire extended family, I am practiced in the art of the “aw, shucks” move.

    Still, whatever my compensating virtues or true opinion of myself, no matter how on my game I’ve felt in my life from time to time, I’ve been around enough truly excellent people who check the boxes I mentioned above and then some to know that it’s a fool’s errand to try and hitch your emotional wagon to true and rare excellence in any one area or another. Even here maybe I’m hiding the ball. Maybe I’m the toughest one in accepting my own mediocrity. Maybe that’s my secret victory – the guy in the corner at the party watching everyone dance saying to himself, “they don’t know I’m the toughest one at accepting mediocrity.”

    In any case, I think my instinct up until the last few years would have been to say that we need to broaden opportunity and diversity so that everyone can find some niche where they feel especially competent. I’ve lost some faith in that as a solution (not that we shouldn’t broaden opportunity and diversity per se) because the vast majority of people who’ve ever lived fall in the meaty part of the bell curve, and if the best things in life can’t apply to them, then it seems to say something bad about life. The people need some consolation for not being Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs or Cleopatra or something.

    Maybe we can retain something of the remarkable but in the private realm among people who know us really well or through quite local contexts, because if mediocrity turned out to mean utter sameness or un-noteworthiness, then we’re in trouble. But it should mean unremarkable at least in the sense of not being Michael Jordan or even the guy who went to the high school down the road and plays a character in Yellowstone, etc.

    If AI does bring about the situation you raise as a possibility, that would make the historical reality starker and maybe snap us into place, helping us realize we need a more disbursed or scalable sense of what it means to live well.

    Not sure if that meets your request. Sounds like a cool project!

  8. Interesting study. A few thoughts …

    If mediocrity is lack of excellence, then it may not be a universal (even if we restrict these to being excellent / mediocre at X); in other words, there may be many different ways of being mediocre at X, that have little or nothing in common, aside from falling short of excellence at X. In other words, mediocrity may be multi-faceted, while excellence would presumably not be (although that might be arguable …).

    For example, I think most educators realize that there are many different ways to be a mediocre student – one student might just be not very good at doing the required work, another might be skilled but lazy, another might be dealing with personal problems that interfere with his/ her potential, another may have the some of the requisite skills but lack other, secondary skills (such as time-management skills, or motivation). Grades measure performance (more accurately, a set of performances) but they don’t distinguish between these cases, and I think most educators would think that these differences in being mediocre are in fact crucial. In other words, can mediocrity really be measured in the way excellence (presumably) can? If not, it would seem that mediocrity and excellence are not really comparable concepts.

  9. Mediocrity does have two senses: in the middle or ordinary; and, say, the second lowest quintile. People move between the two to imply all humanity is second rate, as per Original Sin. And of course it is a term of art in cosmology (Copernican mediocrity) and statistics. In the former case

    “the ‘principle of mediocrity’ which von Hoerner (1963) enunciates in the form
    ‘Anything seemingly unique and peculiar to us is actually one out of many and is
    probably average'”

  10. Mediocrity, in my mind, appears to have to main meanings:
    1. Lack of interest in pursuing excellence.
    2. Inability to excel while competing with others.

    The pursuit of excellence is a highly regarded goal in many cultures. Those who give up, or opt out of this goal may be adopting an adaptive stance when there’s lack of opportunity or skill. Or it may be due to internal, psychological conflict that blocks that pursuit.

    Inability to excel while competing with others is most pronounced in highly individualistic, competitive societies, like ours. Otherwise, even the unremarkable are contributing to the group. Mediocrity, in this sense, with its negative connotation, is meaningless.

  11. The banal catchcry of the mediocre has always been ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’. Taste is a purely subjective liking and therefore depreciation of their aesthetic judgment glances of the impenetrable force field of their ignorance. But perhaps I am wrong to say that they are mediocre which would imply a range of aesthetic sensibility that is current within a tradition and a position on it which receives a damming ‘ could do better’ or ‘must try harder’. When there is no sense of a tradition and a range of excellence within it the gawk has no place to stand. They are not, so to speak, home on a range.

  12. Professor Schwitzgebel wrote of moral mediocrity in his blog Splintered Mind
    I’d guess part of the problem is the level of agency people have and the availability of mentors and relevant experiences.
    Think of virtue ethics- virtue has to be cultivated- something is blocking people from being virtuous in their given field- in previous cultures there was a cursus honorum or at least an ideal of behavior or people in America were raised to be their own man (or woman) and learn how to handle themselves
    I think it may be in part a lack of independence and a defined set of tools and ideals to guide people in their independence- there would be certain domains where people would not be mediocre- maybe tennis players where people develop their own sense of what expertise or virtue means while there or kindegarten teachers would be another example- while in say UPS drivers there might not be
    Just a general idea we’ll have to hammer out specifics

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