Jiwon's Alcove

The Beauty in Mediocrity

Aug 16, 2019
Scene from the film Fourth Place in which a swimming coach is hitting a boy with a broom.

As someone who has academically excelled since a young age, the most difficult transition in college has been an acceptance in my mediocrity.

Korea's Obsession With Success.

I am the poster child of a success-driven society. I was raised in South Korea, a country with incomparable academic pressure. In primary school, I received special education for high-performing STEM students. Later in high school, I was my grade's top-performing competitive mathematician.

All this academic success came at a cost. I had previously discussed my mental and physical health before. Only recently was I formally diagnosed with depression. I am fortunate that I am studying in a US college, where mental health services are readily available. In Korea, the situations are grim.

Korea has been the leading country in suicide rate in the developed world for a decade. For teens, suicide is the leading cause of death. For brevity, I will disregard issues such as poor mental health awareness. Instead, I will focus squarely on the success-driven culture which I believe is to be blamed for.

An excellent example that illustrates the seriousness of the issue is an indie film, Fourth Place, which was nominated for multiple awards for its sharp critique of Korean culture. In it, blatant physical child abuse is tolerated so as long as the child can win a medal in swimming competition to go to college. This critical sentiment is echoed by rapper Huckleberry P in Cooler than the Cool. The lyrics translate to:

Our country calls bronze medal unsatisfactory,

Without gold on our necks, there is no meaning.

Having grown up in this environment, I feel a deep, instinctual sense of guilt if I even dare to approach mediocrity. It is baked into our education to fear failures, to fear slipping grades, and to fear not having enough awards for our college admissions.

Then, it is not surprising that depression is omnipresent. Guilt, self-doubt, and demotivation are all textbook symptoms of depression. Take into consideration that these constant stressors exist from childhood, where kids are expected to learn foreign languages in kindergarten, to adulthood, where overworking is commonplace. Such high suicide rates seem plausible.

A Worldwide Pathological Misconception

I speak as though Korea is the worse offender of a success-driven culture. It probably is. However, I believe this poison of success is widespread throughout most of the developed world. I observed this notion that everyone should strive to succeed in my time in China and the USA.

I suspect that it is an inherent feature of any heavily capitalistic society, which rewards successful people disproportionately more at the expense of those who are less successful.

Here is the thing: you will most likely be mediocre at most everything you do. This conclusion directly follows from drawing a bell curve and an exponentially decaying distribution, two most likely skill distribution in any given task.

Not only that, even if you devote your life to be good at something, there are zero guarantees that you will be a star performer. By definition, most professionals are mediocre at their craft.

Why, then, do we expect everyone to be successful, to the point of systematically ailing our mental health?

An Alternate Path

Perhaps we should choose to appreciate a more abundant fact of live - mediocrity. Our parents are, most likely, mediocre parents. Yet we love our parents. (If you don't, my condolences for your bad luck.) Our beloved ones, our friends, our best and worst experiences, our talents and flaws, our exceptional ideas and our mundane discoveries, and everything, most likely, is mediocre.

From this perspective, the very premise of a success-driven culture is flawed. Instead, this realization opens us to a new possibility: excellence in mediocrity.

This new guiding philosophy in life is two-fold. First, we accept that we can be
mediocre, heck, below-average in many things we strive to be good at, likely forever.

Second, we also accept that a mediocre life can still be a heck of a good time. So as long as we strive to be marginally better than our past selves, we can find joy, beauty, and fulfillment from a mediocre existence.