Mediocrity: A Dissenting Opinion

Ultramarines demand perfection
Ultramarines don’t care for your mediocrity.

Fair warning: this is a bit of a longer post.

If you’ve been watching the wargaming social media landscape for a while, you’ve probably noticed a New York Times opinion piece floating around and getting quite a lot of discussion in the hobby circles. For my part, I first read the article a while ago when it came into my news reader, but it’s made the rounds from Instagram, to various podcasts I listen to, to some YouTube channels that I watch, and I figured I’d share some thoughts too. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the article is an opinion piece called “In Praise of Mediocrity” by Tim Wu. Wu’s main argument is that there are a lot of people who never get into any hobbies, and the reason for that is that a lot of folks are afraid that if they aren’t doing things at the top level, then they really shouldn’t be doing them at all. That’s a pretty uncontroversial statement in itself. I’m sure that most of us at one point or another have felt impostor syndrome in either our work or in anything else we do; however, I do think Wu misses the mark a little bit in both his analysis of the problem and his ultimate conclusion.

So first the analysis. Wu writes

We are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our ‘hobbies,’ if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

According to him, this expectation of skilled leisure activity is what drives people away from a lot of hobbies. Basically, his argument goes, a hobby is supposed to be fun, so whether or not you’re good at it is beside the point. But with how much time we spend under public scrutiny (social media comes to mind, of course), if we aren’t going for peak performance, we start to wonder if we are not being true to what we say we are.

And this is my first area of departure from Wu’s argument. First of all, I tend to think that in whatever you are doing, you absolutely should try to be the best you can be at it. Yes, that’s going to mean work, but if you are going to take the time out of your day to do something, you should try to do it as best as you possibly can. Something like painting miniatures is a good example. You (or I) could just slap paint onto a model, do some quick highlights and call it a day, but at a certain point, that just gets to be lazy. Now personally, I don’t make any claims toward perfection in my painting, but I try my hardest. For me, that’s the rewarding part. Even if I know there are some bad parts of something I’ve painted, I know that I put as much effort as I can into it, and I know that through that effort and practice, I’m going to improve.

This leads me to the second point of departure I make from Wu’s argument: what matters when I work on something is that I know that I improve. Hobbying skills for me are a matter of self-improvement as much as they are a matter of how I spend leisure time, but how do I know that I’m improving? Through reference points– the main one being myself. Here’s what I mean: for my hobby painting, I could go and compare my work to that of someone who’s a professional painter and who makes a living off of teaching classes and commissioned work, but that wouldn’t make one bit of sense. The point that Wu only halfway gets to is that often people’s reference points are wrong. In other words, the thing that keeps people out of hobbying in general (and maybe wargaming in particular) is not the constant struggle for excellence; instead, it’s the comparison of ourselves to others.

The thing to remember if your reference point is other people is that there is always going to be somebody better than you. For every piece I finish, there’s somebody out there who is working better and faster and at a much higher level than me. Because of that, I don’t even bother comparing my work to other people’s. Not only would it not really do anything for my capabilities as a painter, it also wouldn’t show me anything about whether or not I’ve improved. The problem here is that in a public and performative world (both of which are also optional, by the way. No one forces you to be on social media), it can be difficult not to compare yourself to others. My advice there is to just keep in mind what your goals are. If your goal is personal excellence and being the best that you can be, there’s not going to be a problem. Just keep your goals and priorities straight, and you’ll be fine.

But wait, there’s more! I also had another significant disagreement with Wu’s conclusion to the article. In his final paragraph Wu writes

The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.

There is, of course, plenty that goes on to get to this point, so if this is a little decontextualized, go back and read the whole article. I wanted to highlight here the claim that demanding excellence steals the reward of doing something because we enjoy it.

I think we’ve probably all heard the phrase that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, so here’s a question I might put to you and to Tim Wu as well (not that he’s reading, but you never know, right?) if you think your hobby is worth doing; if you are finding personal reward, personal growth, and opportunities to learn in it; and if you truly enjoy it, why not strive to be the best at it? Will you get there? Who knows. Probably not. But the point isn’t getting to the top; the point is trying your very best along the way. That’s not a foreign concept to what we might do in our leisure time, and while it’s true of regular work too, that does not mean that striving for excellence is a bad thing.

So in conclusion, mediocrity be damned. Try your best at what you’re doing, don’t compare yourself to other people, and you’ll probably have a better time and feel more accomplished about it at the end of the day.

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2 Comments

  1. I can see some of the points but they certainly arnt absolutely. Social Media has certainly changed the dynamic of so many things, but as you said… No one forcing you to post your hobby progress. Some people seem so… Indoctrinated into the use of social media that they don’t seem to be able to help themselves. That’s why so many people end up ruining their lives by saying something stupid.

    Maybe the thing they said wasn’t “stupid”… But posting it on social media was. People seem to just use it as platform to narrate their thoughts, which is insane… Because those aren’t millions of robots on the other end watching your every move. They are people. Fallible people may not be able to justify their opinions but will give them regardless. In that respect you get a lot of potential for negativity and I can see how someone can be put off. YouTube in particular. It has a Dislike button?! So people with limited time and atronomical expectation can come across the video of someone trying their best… Not good enough – dislike!

    We can all sympathise with being put off by high expectations though, people are all different and will cope with disappointing results on different ways. I don’t enjoy painting minis that much, but I enjoy it more than I did as a kid, i was never happy enough with the result and asked my friend to paint my biggest models. It doesn’t help that you could look on the box or in white dwarf and see how awesome the models could be. It’s obviously makes more since to compare your own work to you past work, there will always be someone better. Maybe it’s difficult for a lot of people to walk that line between aspirational work and crushingly unattainable standard.

    For no particular reason, patience maybe… I’m a lot better years on despite not practicing in between very much. Obviously, practice helps though and I like taking the opportunity on social media to encourage people who are trying to improve. Advice won’t stand up to knuckling down and trying.

    Have you ever given up on anything you tried? I tried play guitar but I sucked at chords… So I just didn’t bother. I obviously didn’t want it bad enough. I also struggle with learning language… But I haven’t given up on that yet.

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    1. Well said. Especially this: “Maybe it’s difficult for a lot of people to walk that line between aspirational work and crushingly unattainable standard.” That’s certainly something I’ve seen, but I think a lot of it stems comparing ourselves to others. I think social media can make that much worse as well. It can make any hobby somewhat toxic, especially to newcomers. That being said, I also think it’s helpful to cut through the negativity and just focus on your own work. It can certainly be difficult, but not impossible.

      To answer your question, there are definitely things I’ve quit before for similar reasons. I tried taking up drawing at one point, but I was so incredibly awful at it that I didn’t really even want to practice. It was like I was starting at such a low point that I never felt like I was getting anything out of the practice itself. Kind of like you said, I didn’t really want it enough. So I get the impulse to quit, but I also think that if you’ve decided something is worth your time to try, you should definitely give it your best shot. Definitely some interesting things to think about!

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