The glory of mediocrity

by Lauren Budd | 9/21/16 12:44am

This summer, during a dreaded ice-breaking exercise at the beginning of class, I was asked what I like to do in my spare time.

Caught off-guard, I stuttered out something along the lines of, “Um, you know those cooking videos on Facebook…where there are these sped-up dismembered hands… making really unhealthy food really fast…I watch those every day…”

In my defense, those videos are mesmerizing. For me, however, this moment marked the completion of my slide into mediocrity. Had I been asked this very question as a junior or senior in high school, I would have responded first with a trademark stale joke (“Wait, what’s spare time? Ha ha ha! It’s funny because I’m sacrificing my youth!”) and then launched into a canned answer in which I detailed my numerous extra-curricular pursuits and shoehorned in a reference to the elite research internship I had scored.

This always elicited a smile and an impressed comment, which in turn convinced me that I was special, destined for success and somehow that much better at my core than my peers who opted to spend their days watching TV or having an active social life or treating themselves with love and kindness or whatever the hell it was those mysterious average teens did all day.

I did not graduate from high school as valedictorian or salutatorian, which should have been a warning sign for average days to come. However, at the time, I justified this shortcoming by telling myself that I totally could have been at the top of my class, had I only studied hard like those poor, high-achieving saps. I didn’t do that, though — I didn’t need to. I was precocious enough to sail through classes on my own genius. Studying was for the moronic masses. I should know — I was Dartmouth-bound, after all.

I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment during my freshman fall when I realized just how painfully normal I had become. Maybe it was during an in-class debate in which I was blindsided by a counterpoint that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Or during a conversation in which I nodded and smiled at a series of unfamiliar vocabulary words, only to Google them on my phone and realize they were the names of top investment banks.

Most realistically, it was a series of small moments, of scoring at or just below the median, of starting a sentence in class and realizing I had no clue where it was headed or of realizing there were entirely new standards for success that I hadn’t even considered when I matriculated that contributed to my newfound sense of mediocrity.

In a sense, adjusting to normalcy was more frustrating than true failure would have been. I wasn’t bombing tests, just seeing more red ink than usual. I had friends, just not enough. I went out on weekends, but frequently found myself drinking silently with my back against the bar, passed over by my crush and left to hook up with his less hot friend. Also unlike outright failure, a shift to mediocrity did not have a clearly defined path to return to success. I would never be the smartest or the funniest in the room again, and all I could do was accept it.

But I’ve never been a zen person. Attempting to own my okayness only resulted in complacency, taking the B or allowing myself to fall to the sidelines because I was so convinced that my new normal was devoid of any sort of achievement. This didn’t make me any happier or less anxious, it simply mired me further into the bland role I had prescribed myself.

Instead, what did help was redefining my definition of success. When I was very young, I admired people who were smart. When I first got to college, I admired people who were effortlessly popular. Now, the people I admire most are those who are kind. It’s a less tangible sort of success, and yet somehow more achievable. I will never make Phi Beta Kappa, Goldman Sachs will not be sending any letters my way and I will probably never crack 1,000 followers on Instagram. But I can strive to become a person who leaves a conversation with a kind word, who smiles at strangers or who can be counted on for a laugh.

I don’t remember who made the smartest comment during Gov 5 my freshman fall, or even what I got in the class. I couldn’t tell you what it is I said in another class that made my classmates snicker and me want to drop dead. Even Facebook can’t help me recall the name of the gorgeous senior I tried so hard to impress my freshman fall. I do remember the thrill of making a new friend laugh, the sole, unidentified lacrosse player who saw me slip and fall in Foco and promised not to tell and the encouraging note that an upperclassman I looked up to wrote on a paper during a peer review session — the series of small victories that coalesce over time and create a Dartmouth experience richer than I could have imagined when I was weighted down by my own ideas of conventional success.

To return to my classroom experiences, this idea of giving value to small victories has helped recalibrate my confidence in my own intelligence, which I once desperately wished was stronger. I switched studies to a discipline I love, which makes even the most challenging thinking feel effortless. I speak with confidence, and, when I’m off-base or outright wrong, I listen and correct myself rather than withdraw from the conversation in shame. And, during the times when I really am in over my head, when everyone else seems miles ahead I remember that even if I feel like the dumbest person in the room, I’m still in the damn room.