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Re-Centering Mediocrity

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Having adopted a generational name marking the huge yet arbitrary temporal transition that took place towards the beginning of our lives, if for nothing else, millennials will at least be remembered for being millennials.

For those of us born immediately before the new millennia, there is no concept quite as simultaneously boring and terrifying as mediocrity. Our daily lives are strewn with defense mechanisms designed to avoid the label of “mediocre,” which, for some reason, has begun to mean everything that “loser” implies but without the Holden Caulfield romanticism. It carries no hints of indulgent self-destruction, no dazzling ambition, and settles instead on a grey, tasteless mush of existence. But why is this the case? How did a word that implies status quo come to denote the epitome of sub par living? One of the culprits, in this case, is also the most pervasive defense mechanism that we employ against dreadful mediocrity—social media (surprise!).

In 2015 Kate Murphy, a writer for The New York Times, remarked on our struggle for recognition by linking the common phrase, “pics or it didn’t happen” to one of her own invention: “Selfies or you don’t exist.” In a strictly perceptive sense, this phrase actually rings true. Without a presence on social media, it truly is as if you do not exist to a portion of the world. Considered introspectively, Murphy’s assertion is a recognition of our addiction to proof. This is why we see concert arenas full of 20-somethings with their phones out, watching musicians through the small screen of their recording. I cannot speak to generations other than my own, but in a millennial’s world, it is often not enough to have done something or seen something; it is imperative that others know that you have done or seen that thing. It is difficult to ignore, in this case, Kant’s example of the Salesman. We seem to have violated, en masse, the categorical imperative by separating enjoyment into primary (personal) and secondary (comparative) spheres. Providing this proof has become so important because—unless you’re too cool for Facebook or you’re a luddite—anyone can peer into your life. Luckily for us, we can mold this proof to any image that we’d like.  It is this blend of personal transparency and personal malleability that causes us to be constantly aware of how our lives stack up to others. It also makes us want to stand out. This phenomenon is responsible for much of our aggressive distaste of mediocrity.

However, it should be said that we don’t hate all mediocrity. In fact, we love certain mediocrities. The one that we fear is perfective mediocrity: a state of being mediocre that is tied to your soul and your legacy. This form of mediocrity is neither wholly bad nor good but is inescapable. It cleaves to its host in the way that “to be a disgrace” attaches itself more firmly than “to be disgraced.” The same could be said of “to be a hero” compared with “to be heroic.” It is this kind of mediocrity that has somehow become the embodiment of failure for our generation.

Trivial mediocrity is something almost entirely different. Millennials love trivial mediocrity. Take, for example, one of the adored actresses of our time, Jennifer Lawrence. She clearly leads a life that is far removed from the mediocre, and yet her repeated praise of pizza, her clumsy trips, and the way she often jumbles her words make her endearing to us. These small instances of the mediocre, in a life that is anything but, make Jennifer Lawrence more relatable, more tangible, more like us.

This is not a feature only appreciated in celebrities and as such, it manages to appear everywhere in pop culture. The phrase “I can’t even” is a deliberate feign of mediocrity but carries no real consequence. Our culture of exposing our laziest habits and endearingly embarrassing stories has developed around an effort to make ourselves seem “real.”

Being “real” is the highest compliment one can receive these days and is reminiscent of a simple, well led life, but is functionally tied to how exposed your trivial mediocrities are. Someone who does not project their trivial mediocrities might be labeled “fake” simply because they are not willing to invest themselves in the preening of their desirable flaws. This curation requires a skillful navigation of several potential pitfalls. While I spoke about Jennifer Lawrence before in a good light, many people find her annoying or over curated. For trivial mediocrities to actually be relatable, they have to seem to exist on their own—separated from the secondary agenda of social relevance. The repetitiveness of Lawrence’s messiness and the abundance of gifs of her eating pizza have begun to morph her into a paragon of relatability devoid of any real personality. On the other hand, a total lack of such exposures would make her seem cold or elite. There is a middle ground that must be struck when preening such mediocrities, balancing relatability with individuality. This middle ground is surprisingly reminiscent of, well, mediocrity.

Now, I don’t want to sounds as if I’m lecturing my own generation like I know any better. Mediocrity is scary, regardless of how convoluted the reasoning is behind our distaste for it. Having written this, it almost seems like the right thing to do is to resign to a life of peaceful mediocrity. Indeed, many have come to similar conclusions. In War and Peace, Tolstoy (pictured above) wrote that there is a “common sense of mediocrity,” meaning that the mediocre are not bogged down by their own prejudices and successes. And yet it is difficult to embrace such a life—perhaps more so now than ever. Even if we manage not to filter our sense of mediocrity through the dirtying sieves of social media and proof culture, we may fall prey to the ultimate (albeit potentially naïve) enemy of the simple life that mediocrity offers: the nagging, what if?


Author: Emery Jenson

Web: Carolyn Tang

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