You are now entering the zone of mediocrity


“Some people are born mediocre, some people achieve mediocrity, and some people have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

Joseph Heller


“We must overcome the notion that we must be regular…it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre.”

Uta Hagen

I can comfortably say the zone of mediocrity is expansive and well populated. In fact, it consistently amazes me business’s rationalization of mediocrity, or, maybe better said, business’s comfort in mediocrity.” I am exponentially amazed because if you were to interview 100 different business leaders about their organization and company vision nowhere within that entire interview would you hear “we seek mediocrity.” In fact, I can almost guarantee there will be words like extraordinary, innovative, best, new and bla … bla … bla. Yeah. Mediocrity is a stellar example that what people say and what they do are often two completely different things. It makes you wonder a little that if everyone’s attitude is so expansive why is their actual behavior so reductive (which leads to mediocrity)? One writer suggested the reason is ‘vainglory.’

“Vainglory,” an anachronistic term meaning an unjustified and excessive pride in one’s own achievements or abilities is one of the primary forces animating and shaping contemporary culture.

Yeah. I buy that theory.

Which leads me to a caution about mediocrity.

The truth is that death resides in the zone of mediocrity, therefore, mediocrity is to be feared. Interestingly I think companies do fear it. It’s the leaders who are failing the companies – they do not fear mediocrity. Mostly because, as noted in the opening, the zone of mediocrity is expansive and can be quite profitable. But, in the end, mediocrity is about playing it safe.

So what is at the root of the ‘play-it-safe mediocrity’? Criticism seems to have replaced oppositional debate as a form of business acumen. Inherent in criticism is diminishing without enhancement. Oppositional debate is contrarianism with the intent to enhance. Frankly, I don’t have too much to offer here on why that is happening. If it were a generation thing, I may have an idea, but the people criticizing (leaders) typically grew up in an oppositional debate business world.  So I am not sure what is breeding this attitude & behavior.

Regardless. It’s happening. And leaders are consistently permitting their organizations to get sucked into the world of mediocrity regardless of the criticism/debate thing I brought up. It gets a bit worse – when a company with all the potential to succeed gets sucked into the zone of mediocrity.  It is frustrating to see, painful to watch and listen to their justifications, as they continue in a doom loop of mediocrity and unfulfilled potential.

I can even identify some key characteristics of a company mired in mediocrity.

1.        High churn of leader low-senior people (the ones who ache to not be mediocre and seek to take the calculated risks to break out).

They get frustrated. And they leave for greener grass when frustrated.

2.       Low churn of low-senior people with middle age kids.

Oh.  They will bitch. Make some noises. But they know if they feed the mediocre machine (and get a small win here or there) they will never get fired. So they don’t take the day to day risks it often takes to rise above the zone of mediocrity. Worse? They learn to live within it.

3.        High churn of young people. Especially the good ones.

The ones who have some ambition or maybe not a lot of ambition, but want to learn stuff.  They max out fast in the mediocrity zone and hit a level of dissatisfaction quickly. These really hurt an organization because this group dials up the company culture of miserableness in a sneaky way. They aren’t really grumbling.  It’s worse than grumbling. They simply ask questions among themselves. The “why” question.  Why are we this way?  Why aren’t we growing?  Why wasn’t that idea discussed instead of the one that was?  Why are we satisfied with mediocrity? Why, why, why and why again.  They sense that something is off kilter, but they don’t know the answer. They just keep asking the question.

And when all of that has swirled around long enough. When the repetition of mediocrity is solidly in place eventually everyone, all groups and all employees and all people, will get lulled into a sense of helplessness. They start believing they cannot fight ‘the man’ (it can be identified specifically as the leader or simply the mediocre organization as a whole) and so they lose sight, or the desire to actually envision, for a ‘something better than mediocrity.’

In the end.

Being in the zone of mediocrity in the workplace is odd. A little strange. Something feels off, some in-office rhythm is missing, something is off kilter, off balance, out of place.

It’s something you cannot really quite put a finger on mostly because potential is always lurking around every corner. With all that it becomes, well, it becomes easy to get sucked into the zone of mediocrity because there is nothing concrete to point to. So what can you do? (other than bitch & moan & be mediocre).

–          If you are a leader? Lead by not accepting mediocrity (or at least be able to identify, honestly, what mediocrity is).

–          If you are the rest of the world? Well. I cannot guarantee this will get you out of the zone all the time, but you will feel better about yourself and more fulfilled as a person (and possibly be better armed to battle mediocrity).

Never stop learning.

The corollary to this is ‘never stop challenging the norm.’ At this idea’s foundation is something called commitment. Never stop learning takes commitment. Because in the zone of mediocrity life is much much easier if you go with the flow and accept ‘that is the way it is done.’  Be committed to never stop learning.  From anyone.  From any place. At any time.

Develop an interest for something.

There is nothing like interest to create day-to-day energy <**note: I purposefully do not use passion because passion, generally speaking, is not sustainable>. This is much much bigger than ‘overcoming fear of failure’ or learning from mistakes or any kind of crap like that. This is about positively moving toward some unseen objective – fueled by an internal interest.  The best example I found was about Thomas Edison. It stated: Thomas Edison and the lightbulb. He failed more than 10,000 times. When he was asked what kept him going after so many failures, he said that he had not failed at all. What he had done was to find 10,000 ways that did not work. I will talk about resiliency next … but for now? That is high interest in something. Find something to rally around. It’s easier to fight the good fight if you care.

No quit.

This is possibly better defined as “character resiliency.” This has nothing to do with trying and doing and day in and day out grinding it out.  This is bigger picture stuff. This is about not giving up on what you dream or imagine. Mediocrity of almost all things in life takes a boatload of resiliency to face and defeat. I threw in character, but at its core this is resiliency.  Mediocrity is relentless and patient and sneaky. You cannot quit, ever, in your battle against mediocrity.

Ok. So. What happens if you don’t attempt the three things I suggest (or anything to get out of the mediocrity zone)?

Well. If you don’t do this (and reside in the hellish zone of mediocrity), I have one word for you. Regret. Regrets are almost always about missed opportunities – failing to take the risks that could have led to a more fulfilling outcome.

Mediocrity is numbingly subtle.

You have to believe you are called to something bold and amazing. Even if it is simply engineering the best toilet.  I read somewhere three keys to fighting your way out of this mediocrity malaise:

  1. I believe we each hold within us a vast reservoir of courage.
  2. I believe in doing something every day that scares the shit out of me.
  3. I believe in burning my ships and declaring myself all in.

This should be pinned to every wall. Breaking out of mediocrity means being courageous, scared shitless sometimes and being “all in” when making a decision.


But before anyone thinks this is some wacky uncomfortable hi-risk leadership point of view. Let me say it takes all those things as well as some blending. Yeah. A blend. Blending risk and safety is the key to success. Too much of either is just not good stewardship.  Foolish risk taking is as bad as mediocrity.  Somewhere in the middle is the zone of success.

All that said.

Mediocrity is a simple thing to identify (if you are honest with yourself). Mediocrity is driven by inertia. So, saying that, mediocrity ends up actually being a choice (it doesn’t come naturally).

I will try and end this by explaining the zone of mediocrity and that choice I just mentioned by using Yeats:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

(note: gyre – a vortex, a circular or spiral motion, especially in ocean currents)

Yeats suggests that at any moment forces are raveling and unraveling, forming and disintegrating in polarity (or, as one writer explained, “gyres” superimposed on each other with the apex or narrowest point of one at the center of the other’s base). Therefore, moments of opportunity occur when time shifts from the outer to the inner gyre – somewhere within the constantly raveling & unraveling.

Leaders are always a focal point for a company’s constantly spinning gyre of ambition and desires. So that leader has to recognize the possibilities inherent in change and the accompanying risks. No change, or progress, occurs in the face of all this raveling and unraveling only through the choice to be mediocre – and not make change (or worse … not take advantage of the forming opportunities).

Their excuse for mediocrity? (if there is an excuse at all). Mediocrity occurs because the problem is that unraveling/raveling is rarely neat and the leader risks losing what is most important – the center.  Or as Yeats suggests:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

And therein lies the true foundation of the zone of mediocrity.

Those in leadership positions of power and authority who foresee the possibility of ‘things falling part’ remain frozen in models that no longer function, or adapt, in a new environment.  They fear losing what is at the center (which is certainly the closest to their soul & well being &, uhm, their comfort). So they refuse to embrace change and instead embrace mediocrity.

And in that, my friends, we end up in the infamous zone of mediocrity.


Written by Bruce