Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Ode to Mediocrity

Consider any quality: Physical, intellectual, emotional, economic, social, spiritual. Create any grading scale of that quality that you feel suitable. Start placing the members of the human population at various grades. You are well likely to end up with a bell-curve. And where will you find yourself? Well, if you are somewhat like me, I'm sure it will be somewhere close that crowded median. Repeat the exercise with another virtue. Again, most likely, you will be loafing around close to the median.
Again, if you are like me and every other mediocre person, every single day or your life, you aspire – no, agonise – to break free of your mediocrity. You too, at least sometimes, dream of being a star.
Stars are those who once, at least once, become the best in something. Their glitter may fade after a period – brief or long. Rajesh Khanna was a star. He shone bright for a while, and faded away into oblivion, to come back briefly once more to the limelight when he died. But we have others like Gandhi, Einstein, Vinci, Tolstoy etc. whom people will probably never tire of talking about. Their stardom may go. With time, they may even get surpassed by someone else in their achievements. But the stories of their achievements endure well beyond the relatively brief period of their stardom. These are legends.
Legends are legends because they somehow end up doing something which changes the world. But you don't need to change the world to be a star. You don't need to invent a medicine for AIDS. You don't need to sacrifice your life for the freedom of your nation. You don't need to reveal to the world the metaphysical secret behind their living and dying. You just need to take something – however trivial, however insignificant, however irrelevant to the current concerns of people – and become good at it. You have to be so good that you become a benchmark in that. The importance of your achievement isn't in the choice of what you have done, but to what extent you went in perfecting your ability to do it. A person who has trained himself all his life to swim as fast as anyone can – which will hardly ever mean anything for the alleviation of one man's misery – becomes a Michael Phelps. Someone specialising in painting horses, naked dieties, and erotic scenes involving them becomes a reverred as well as controversial artist. There seem to be seemingly an infinite number of things to choose from to achieve your stardom.
And yet, stars would probably make a meagre 0.00000001% (I typed a string of zeros that just looked long enough; don't read too much into it) of the population. Legends make up a vanishingly tinier fraction of that. Rest of populations constitutes of wannabes and losers.
Then why on Earth, like me, does every mediocre person perhaps wants to become a star, knowing full well that, by the very definition of the term, stars will always constitute a minuscule part of the population? Logically speaking, the probability of success in becoming one is that much small for all of us. But still we keep trying and trying and trying.
Trying endlessly is one thing. But we go beyond that. We hate ourselves, our lives, everything until we get stardom in at least something. We call ourselves mediocres, losers. The wish to be a star has probably brought out the best in a bunch of people. But for the remaining teeming millions, it makes life a hellish business.
The world is fully justified in celebrating its stars, in worshipping its heroes. Because heroes line the limits to which humans are capable of going in the infinite space of activities. But it's a sheer tragedy that the remaining population, which does the very important task of filling up the space in between these boundaries, frets and whines about getting there at the boundary at least once, to get a photo taken of themselves in that moment of stardom, and to think of that brief moment as the summary of their life. How much more stupid could humanity get?!
How can 70-80 years of living be about vying for a moment of glory that mostly doesn't come? And even if it does, what value does it really have if earned through mere suffering, not just of the self, but of innumerable others trying uselessly to clinche that moment. That moment becomes precious, often not by its intrinsic value, but by the very fact that most won't get it. Just as gold is considered more valuable than iron because very few have it. I don't fully understand the logic behind considering something valuable merely because it's rare. And yet, I know, that's what we humans keep doing.
Tell me, isn't it a huge, colossal mistake? I know, humanity has been committing it since ever, and is probably cursed genetically to continue committing it forever. Yet, I don't think Phelps could have made it if swimming hadn't given him a day to day sense of well-being. I can't imagine M. F. Hussain churning out so many paintings till the last day of his long life without each painting giving him the pleasure of having said something of his own. Phelps' best laps can't be his medal-winning ones. Hussain's best paintings may never have been sold.
Feeling of worth is a very private feeling. Experience of beauty is a very solitary experience. It doesn't get displayed to a clapping audience; it can't be auctioned to rich bidders. And those moments of beauty are the blessings we all humans have got, whether we are stars or mediocres. The privilege to create is afforded to every one of us. That privilege is available each and every moment of our life. The principle output of that creation is the experience of creating. Not how it changes the world, or how people clap, or how much it is sold for. The reason for an act of creation is fulfilled much before it ever comes before any audience, at the very moment of its happening. And that fulfilment doesn't depend on whether you are a star or a mediocre. It just asks you: did you feel the joy? Did you feel it enough?
The thought of being mediocre is a liberating one in a sense. It frees you from the pressure of trying to be the best, the first, the quickest. We know that the burden of changing the world is not on our shoulders. Being mediocre, you can just focus on what you like doing, and enjoy yourself. What the world wants to make out of your work is purely their worry. From your perspective, it's at best a side effect of your actions. Beyond the condition where the world perceives it practically worth their while to let you exist, I don't think you owe anything to it. Your life is yours to live. Your strengths are yours to use; your frailties are yours to fight.
Also, every one of us isn't born to paint a Mona Lisa, to discover the laws of motion. OK, if fixing that broken tap in your house is the best thing you can do at the moment, why not do it and feel as happy? That's your contribution to making the world a better place (and for sure, for your wife this contribution will count more than Newton's laws of motion). So, why be judgemental?
In short: you think you are a mediocre? Good! Happy Independence Day!

Relevant Posts:
Something I wrote exactly a year ago seems relevant in an uncanny way!


Pritesh Ananth Krishnan said...

A very thought-provoking post Sujit. I think, the feeling of stardom also has a very personal definition. For some, it gets equated with money, for some fame, for some recognition as an expert.

Though I completely appreciate your sentiment that one does contribute in some way to the "gaps" between stardom and everything else, I'm probably an endless pursuer of excellence. I feel that there should be SOMETHING you can call yourself excellent at. It could be anything at all! :)

I'm probably from the crowd where being "mediocre" at something you wish to do well is non-acceptable. I can't say it causes me stress but I also feel that a finite amount of stress, depression, feeling bad is necessary for excelling. You got to give something to get something :)

Sambaran said...

Brilliant post!

Abhinava Pratap Singh said...

Great post. Was interesting to read.