A few weeks ago, I attended the wedding of one of my best friends in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The venue exuded old-time classiness with its beautiful white facade, monochrome interior, and vibrant green vineyard scattered all over the property. The estate was surrounded by powerful yet peaceful mountains, and a river that calmly ran through the backyard.
On the day itself, the sky was immensely blue – a blue that can only be found in Africa! The guests were all flawlessly beautiful and couldn’t stop pursing the lips in pure bliss, showing off their Colgate-white teeth.
It was such a magical day that it took on the air of timelessness; the seconds stayed suspended in the air like sticky treacle, the way it does when one dreams.
And yet out of everything that happened during this one-in-a-lifetime event, the one distinct memory that imprinted itself into my brain was when the groom said during his speech:
“My wife and I refuse mediocrity. “
Now, what a powerful statement.
He carried on by giving his own personal definition of mediocrity. And that is when things became even more interesting – it made me realize that the term mediocrity is just like the term happiness: everyone has their own definition of it.
Definition of mediocrity: Status Quo
This newly wed couple defined mediocrity as the status quo. Therefore, their remedy to mediocrity is movement. He cited all their traveling and all the thrilling activities they did, for instance jumping out from a plane (why would one want to do that?!) and competing in Ironman. It is important to mention that she beat his timing on that one.
Their secret to a lifelong rebellion against stagnation will be to always be in action, to always do more and do better than the previous time, and even try to conquer time, if not beat it, by constantly playing with the different time zones or staying out till sunrise. In other words, their movement will be terrestrial and extraterrestrial… and full of energy!
In their definition of mediocrity, they place emphasis on the physicality. I am not saying that they do not stimulate themselves intellectually because they do – nevertheless the fulcrum they leverage the most is physical stimulation.
Definition of mediocrity: Being part of the masses
On the other hand, my brother, who introduced me to the term of mediocrity when I was 5 years old (too young if you ask me), put the accent on another aspect.
Before I disclose his personal definition, please bear in mind that he is the archetype of the stable genius: he has fascinating intellectual dilemmas yet remains utterly incapable of properly pronouncing the letter “s”.
And so, the first memory I have of being introduced to the concept of mediocrity: I was five years of age, sitting in my room in Hong Kong and brushing my hair of my Barbie, when my nine year old brothers suddenly barged in and with a serious nervousness exclaimed:
-“Sister, tell me! If we were in the second World War, would I have been part of the resistance movement, like our grandfather? Or would I have been a mediocre person, like everyone else?”
I froze with my Barbie in one hand and her brush in the other, looking at him blankly. I had not understood a word he had just said. Once he realized that I was not a good interlocutor, he left the very way he came in – in seek of the truth.
I started screaming: “Maman!!!!!”
My mum came up to me swiftly and asked me what was wrong.
I bombarded her with questions: what is the resistance movement? What does “mediocrity” mean? And most importantly, what is “the second World War”?
She asked me if I had been talking to my brother again and I nodded. I do not remember what she answered. But I do remember the way my brother had strode into my room five minutes previous.
The sincerity had been written so plainly on his face and there had been so much gravity in his line of questioning. I recognised the importance in his words and my memory did not fail me on that count. I remember this episode as if it were yesterday.
My nine year old brother linked mediocrity to morality: a mediocre human being was the average human being, languishly accepting a situation despite the knowledge of it immorality. Not fighting against it, not trying to change it. To just be a number among the bigger number. To be amongst the masses with no higher moral or purpose in life other than to survive.
Definition of mediocrity: an average intelligence
Ernest Hello, another intellectual, but this time from the XIXth century, described the mediocre Man as the man who lacks morality. He wrote:
“The characteristic feature, absolutely characteristic of the mediocre man, is his deference to public opinion. He never speaks, he always repeats. He judges a man on his age, his position, his success, his fortune. He has the deepest respect for those who are known, no matter what, for those who have printed a lot. He would court his cruelest enemy if that enemy became famous; but he would disregard his best friend if no one praised him. He does not conceive that a man who is still obscure, a poor man, whom one elbows, which one treats without way, which one tu, can be a man of genius[…] He likes impersonal literature; he hates books that force you to think.He likes those who resemble all the others, those who return to his habits, who do not burst his mold, who hold in his frame, those whom we know by heart before having read them, because they are similar to all those we read since we know how to read.”
It is striking how Ernest Hello’s words still resonate with a genuine strength today, perhaps even more so than when they had been set to paper. He added that the mediocre Man despises the genius, who is the worst enemy of the enlightened man because the mediocre man does not think. The mediocre man refuses to think. He just “repeats”. There is no intellectual stimulation.
This text from Ernest is a strict and irrevocable condemnation towards the mediocre Man, just like the newlyweds and my brother did. They all share a pure disgust towards the mediocre Man.
Is Man mediocre by essence?
These three definitions all give a personal meaning to the term and their personal antidote to it. It could be the act of constantly aiming for more and for the better; of having a higher purpose in life; of intellectually stimulating yourself.
Having said that, these three definitions do share a fundamental common denominator. They all express the idea of making an effort: cerebrally, physically and/or morally. The key to fight mediocrity is to make an effort. And when I observe my 9 month old daughter and the children around her, I can only conclude that Man was not born mediocre.
The beginning of life is packed chock-full of intellectual and physical stimulation and it is a world governed by morality: everything is centered around “the dos and don’ts”, the good or the bad. Babyhood and childhood are a universe of values and of constant learning.
Therefore, my unappealable judgment towards Man is that we were not born mediocre, we become mediocre in life. The only way to stave mediocrity off is to continuously, consciously make an effort; all the way through childhood, across the turning point of teenaged life, and straight into the Ironman that is adult life.
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