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Nedko Solakov in Amadoodles

(C) Nedko Solakov in Amadoodles

Mediocrity is relative. You will think of course it is. Mediocrity is a matter of comparison. Or better, mediocrity is a matter of ranking. And mediocrity is a the state of being stuck in the middle. In the film Amadeus, Salieri compares himself to Mozart. Compared to Mozart he felt that he was mediocre. He relates his mediocrity to the ease in which Mozart could compose. That’s because composing came naturally for Mozart. Salieri had to work hard to compose. For an account of Salieri’s work read this. Watch also the fragment of the movie: .

The question is: who is mediocre? The music of Salieri – even though he is less known – is worthwhile listening to. He has been the teacher of many composers. He inspired others. He never achieved cult status, that is true. But don’t forget that a genius like Johan Sebastian Bach had been forgotten until Mendelssohn exhumed his work. Today it’s hard to imagine a (musical) world without Bach. And if you would compare composers to Bach, most of them would pale. There is no comparison possible. There is no comparison needed.

What’s the yardstick?

First, what is mediocrity. The definition I find in the dictionary is not satisfactory: “The quality of something that is not very good”. The dictionary mentions the word good. That means there is a judgment. And then the question is: who judges? Is it the best that judge? Is there an absolute yardstick?
Second, the yardstick is changing. What was good half a century ago, is mediocre today. Look at the animation on the right. You are looking at the gold medal winners in vaults. Their performance lies 54 years apart. The woman in the black and white movie would not win today. Her performance would be catalogued as mediocre. Still she was a great gymnast. What’s the difference? Virtuosity. In sports, performing arts, … we have added virtuosity to the equation. So what was excellent in the past, is today mediocre. And the difference is often frivolous virtuosity.

Gold medal vaults

Gold medal Vaults – 54 years apart

However, you cannot always add virtuosity to every performance. And sometimes virtuosity hides mediocrity. Very often, virtuosity adds no value at all but creates confusion. Excellent people might just focus on the essence, without feeling the need to compare to others. And it’s competition that creates virtuosity. Trying to be better than others, might nudge you towards exaggeration. And if you exaggerate, you become in a way, mediocre.

Another definition of Mediocrity

We need another definition of mediocrity.

Mediocrity is the state in which a person finds himself when he does not use his talent.

I have no judgement about that talent, but I know everyone has some. The mediocrity only comes from not using it. So mediocrity is relative. But the point of comparison lies within ourselves, not outside of ourselves. And yes, sometimes we want to prove how good we are in a competition. But there is only one winner, in a competition. Does that mean that the other participants are mediocre? Absolutely not.

A Matter of choice

Mediocrity is a matter of choice. And it is a matter of perseverance. Someone can decide not to be(come) mediocre, by always trying to do better than before. And even with limitations, there are possibilities as you can learn from this story.

Excellence lies within us. And so does mediocrity.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • kindadukish says:

    “You are looking at the gold medal winners in vaults. Their performance lies 54 years apart. The woman in the black and white movie would not win today. Her performance would be catalogued as mediocre”………….no it wouldn’t. You are comparing Vera Chaslavska who was one of the greatest atheletes of her generation against a modern day competitor. Notice the build of them, one is a full grown woman and the other is a young girl and this impacts upon the routines they can perform. Moreover, as with all sports techniques have improved, fitness levels enhanced (by drugs in some cases) and training routines fiercly harsh e.g. eastern block countries and China.
    So we are not comparing like with like and your use of the word mediocre to describe Chaslavska insults the name of a great gymnast.

    • Thanks for your comment. I am referring to the relative nature of mediocrity. The arguments you give are in support of this. Yes, many things have changed. I have not said that Chaslavska is a mediocre gymnast, but that the same performance today would not generate a gold medal. The yardstick changes.

  • kindadukish says:

    So you are not comparing like with like, therefore any comparison about mediocrity is invalid.

    • But that’s not the point. The point is that the yardstick is changing. And that her performance of half a century ago ceteris paribus would not result in a gold medal. What was gold then, is no longer enough for gold today. However, mediocrity is to me not an absolute judgment by someone else. It’s about using your talent at the best of your abilities. So mediocrity is relative – depending on the yardstick and in the first place depending on your own point of reference, which should be an internal one.

      • kindadukish says:

        Yes it is the point. You seem to be trying to dress this up in some kind of intellectual argument. Time moves on, standards (particularly in sport improve) change but the use of the word “mediocre” as in “her performance would be classed as mediocre” in your original posting simply does not stand up to scrutiny. It was of its time but it could not be classed in any way as mediocre.
        Try googling Nelli Kim and Ludmilla Tourischeva and watch these great gymnasts from the 1970s and tell me their performances were “mediocre” compared with those of the child like waifs that came a little later e.g. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comenaci.
        Yes, they may have been less agile and less technical and you are right thery probably wouldnt have won gold medals if competing against Korbut and Comenaci but that in no way diminishes their original performances, and I return to by basic arguement that you are not comparing like with like.
        The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines mdeiocre as “of middling quality, neither good nor bad, fairly bad” therefore I would suggest that the use of this term in relation to performances in previous years is not valid.

        • I kindly invite you to re-read my post.
          This is the phrase I have used: “Her performance would be catalogued as mediocre”.
          “would be” is not the same as “is”.
          Historical relativism would require us to look at past performances with the eyes of that time. And then the word mediocre is indeed not appropriate. Hence, the use of the word “would”.
          You seem to be knowledgeable about gymnastics. But look at other fields: performing arts, science, a day in the office … If you would work the way you were working 20 years ago, you wouldn’t cut it. So things change, and the yardstick to which performance is measured changes.
          The article is not about those gymnasts. They are coincidental examples of how performance expecttions change. Mediocrity should not be a judgment made by others through comparison with others, but a personal evaluation of how you use your talents. Like someone has commented on Linkedin: mediocrity is the consequence of complacency and of being too easily satisfied with the situation.
          Look at the video of Tim’s place in the blog: or how someone with limitations can overcome them. Tim is not mediocre, because he uses his talents. Like the gymnasts in both movies are not mediocre as they have pushed their talent into a performance that got them the gold medal.

          • kindadukish says:

            I think you are beinbg semantic by saying the phrase “would be” is not the same as “is”……….it either is or isn’t.
            I agree things change over time, standards improve but again performances over 25 years ago in whatever field (music, sport, business) cannot be evaluated as mediocre. You say that “Mediocrity should not be a judgment made by others through comparison with others, but a personal evaluation of how you use your talents” but isnt this what you are doing when commenting on other peoples past performance.
            As far as the Tim video is concerned, I find it interesting that you see someone with “limitations” when I just see an employee providing excellent customer service.
            It is obvious from these exchanges that you have a very different view of people than I do so we will just have to agree to disagree about this issue, but it has provided a very interesting and stimulating discussion.

  • I like David Ducheyne comment on Mediocrity; it has made me to think in a different and deeper way about the lack of effective leadership skills, which usually include impairment for identifying talent in others. I do believe that forgetting to be open to new insights and knowledge leads to mediocrity. The world changes fast; the ways and once believed great practices for educating and learning, for working and leading, are changing constantly. If one does not listen and explore different points of view from ours in an effort for improving our perceptions of such changes, we may loose the opportunity to adapt to these. And the lack of adaptation has shown to be the biggest risk for survival, since it leads to mediocrity as the first indicator of it; being the second a failure.

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