Success and Mediocrity

Something I’ve wanted to put together for a while is a post praising the success to be found in mediocrity. More precisely, after having spent a while listening to my inner voices and a few real people do the “what the hell is going on? this isn’t where I intended to be?” conversation, I think it’s time to point out that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being where-ever you are in your life. There are certain choices we can make but, after that, it’s all about the keeping on keeping on.

This is more a personal thing than related to writing but it does have some implications. It’s not something any entertainment, news or social medium does particularly often or well. Heroes are heroic, Nobel prize winners are winners, film stars are stars, etc, etc. Even those who come from humble beginnings (that lovely old fashioned phrase) find themselves in a narrative that explains why they aren’t so humble after all – child of a king, either legitimate or not, or clever, or so determined to get attention that they were entertaining the whole damned town by the time they were five. We even apply these narratives to ourselves: I am different, I am special, I have the marks of success. For example, it’s very rare that you’ll come across a writer who doesn’t describe themselves as “writing from a very young age” as if this makes any success they have more legitimate.

ASIDE: I am not going to buck the trend. I was writing from a young age but, then, my mother encouraged such self-expression – along with drawing, painting, baking, playing the recorder both with and without tuition (not the best choice), and acting in front of proud parents and less impressed family pets. However, I never took it seriously until much later.

This is not to say that we aren’t individually special and different from everyone else. It’s not against my personal philosophy to say that we are – only that we have difficulty processing the idea of just how many individuals there are in the world. What I disagree with is the idea that success is only found in leading the winning side, gaining a title that millions recognise, winning a prize that millions have heard of, making millions of some currency, selling millions of books, and so on.

We Can’t All Be Winners

The typical thing would be to compare life to a race and say that someone always has to come first, therefore the rest are losers. Then maybe some pap about how it’s the taking part that counts. That never made me feel any better when I came last. So how about this instead.
If nothing else, statistics suggest that that kind of distribution just isn’t going to happen. Without allowing for interference, we have a standard distribution curve, also known as a bell curve:

Standard Distribution (Bell Curve) borrowed from http://fss.educatedinvestor.com/fss-assets/images/1846954400_1_sm.gif

Standard Distribution (Bell Curve) borrowed from http://fss.educatedinvestor.com/fss-assets/images/1846954400_1_sm.gif

Of course, we’re not organised quite so nicely and neatly because few people have a lot of money and plenty more people (although less than the majority) have none, so – at least in terms of income – we have a distorted curve that may look a little more like this:

Skewed Distribution (Bell Curve) borrowed from http://onlinestatbook.com/2/introduction/graphics/pos_skew.jpg

Skewed Distribution (Bell Curve) borrowed from http://onlinestatbook.com/2/introduction/graphics/pos_skew.jpg

There’s going to be slightly different curves for things that are under social control (honours and rewards, caps for particular sports, acting roles, etc) where “social” is loosely defined as whomever is in a position to distribute the thing being measured.

The actual related skills may be closer to the idealised standard distribution but bringing the initial raw talent up to a particular level will skew the curve due to needing the time (and/or the money) to invest on bringing it along. For example, the five year old recorder playing me required time to learn to become a half-way decent instrument player. I also needed lessons from a professional in order to refine my skill. I didn’t bother investing in either, although the teacher bit was restricted by lack of parental income as much as personal choice.

Similar things happen when we plot “normal” or non-disabled or neurotypical (NT) or healthy, depending on what particular issue we put on the bottom axis. There are people who are “never ill” but they will be at the extreme end of the curve. There are people whose immune systems are such that they come down with every bug – or, more likely, are kept extremely protected to ensure they never get exposed to such bugs. And then there are the rest of us, somewhere in the middle. When it comes to things like the Autism Spectrum (AS) and Depression, because we’re dealing with a huge number of similar neurological differences that have similar effects, we’re not entirely sure what lies on the opposite side of “normal” / NT (if we assume that’s the bulge in the middle of the bell curve) that may have automatically been lumped in with it by virtue of not being AS or Depression.

ASIDE: I’m of the opinion that reality has an almost infinite number of axes / differences and that we tend to lump multiples together when we either don’t know any better or to simplify the model. Mainly because this explains the problems we have when we start to scale things up.

So, as mentioned, even a vague handwave at statistics shows that we can’t all be “winners”. By which I mean, we can’t all be King / Queen of a country, international level Rugby players, internationally famous film stars, Nobel prize winners, composers whose work will be played hundreds of years after their death, and so on. It’s not possible.

So What Is Success?

Well, basically, that depends. There are somethings people that are obviously successful. This may or may not be resented.

What did Queen Elizabeth II do to become Queen of the UK? Not a lot. She was born into the right position in the right family at the right time. This does not mean that she hasn’t worked in that role of royalty and then Queen, but it isn’t something that was initially achieved as a result of her hard labour. It’s also not something that will ever be taken away from her because she is a well-loved monarch, disregarding disagreement with the idea of monarchy. So, her success is measured not by achieving her position but by public opinion.

What about famous writing, acting and sports stars? Well, depending on how you view their initial talent and skills, they’re just very lucky. There are plenty of talented people – consider the bell curve – who might have been able to achieve the same levels. Or not. The people who really make it are those that have both the opportunity – being discovered – and capture the imagination – public opinion. Depending on your point of view, the skillset – which may not include the writing / acting / playing – does help as it allows them to take advantage of that opportunity and control that public opinion. There are men and women who were talented and never invested in developing that into a skillset, whether due to their own interest or financial backing. There are men and women with the skillset but not the opportunity to become the Next Big Thing – more likely due to the lack of someone else’s interest or financial backing. They keep their position by continuing to entertain. There are people who get the opportunity to become the Next Big Thing but lose it because they’re the wrong character, the wrong face, (possibly) the wrong level of talent.

Similarly for famous business men (and women). With allowance for whatever constraints act on a particular industry, not everyone will get the opportunities that, say, Alan Sugar got. This is not to say he hasn’t worked hard, that he isn’t talented and / or skilled and / or business smart. He couldn’t have taken advantage of those opportunities if he wasn’t.

But… This level is obviously only a top tier. There are actors who are never held to be more than “character actors” who have plenty of work. There are directors of companies who get paid millions but probably wouldn’t be recognised on the street. All this goes to show that there are multiple tiers of success, held back from the top tier by their own skills not being quite what’s needed, a lack of opportunity and / or public opinion. They could even be held back by themselves. Maybe they don’t want to be in the newspapers every day, or would rather have a balanced work-home life, or don’t put themselves forward for the opportunity.

So What’s Holding Them Back?

So I’m going to use a few personalised examples of why I’m not intending to be a top tier success. (Although, you know, if you want to buy millions of copies of 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf when it comes out, don’t let me hold you back.) Mainly because I can’t tell other (real) people’s stories.

Let’s start with something obvious. I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a diagnosis you can chose to agree or disagree with in your own time. While being interviewed by the nurse prior to diagnosis, the kind of things people who are further along the spectrum can’t cope with came up in conversation. I am happy to report that I can walk into crowded supermarket (just about, any longer than half an hour and I’m in the checkout queue desperate to get out even if I haven’t got everything). I can buy a drink at a bar. I can drive without having panic attacks because of all the stuff going on around me. I can stand up in front of a room of people and give a presentation. I can hold down a job (although various employers / line managers may want to complain about my performance). In these terms, compared against other people, I am a success.

I’m not sure, however, that it counts. This has been with me all my life, even without a diagnosis and it does make me recast some of the stupider or odder acts of my childhood in a better light. It also explains the nervousness / panic / outright terror that certain situations give me and I remember to consider those moments a success simply for making it out the other side. But I was lucky enough – like the Queen in my own small way! – to have been born into a brain that isn’t that far off NT. Encouraged by a practical family who a) didn’t realise I would eventually be diagnosed and b) think life is just something you get on with, I accept that AS will make certain things more difficult and I try to acknowledge any success when I can. I just don’t think it’s fair to hold up others’ difficulties to prove I’m doing okay, any more than it would be okay to compare someone doesn’t have the same stress levels against me.

How about another example? That holding down a job that I mentioned? Well, I’ve made some rum decisions that I won’t go into the detail of but it’s put me in positions where I’ve then been unemployed or underemployed. After the first time, I learnt that you don’t willingly walk away from employment without the next job lined up. After the second I learnt that you don’t walk away into a job without definite hours. The thing is, having got myself in those situations, it was very difficult to get out. It’s hard to get work – I find it hard to get another job while I am employed, and it’s several times worse when I was unemployed. And, of course, it didn’t matter how many cvs I sent off and applications I filled in. I was still waiting on someone else to give me the opportunity.

To put it in the terms of that Grand Theory of mine, I shifted from one orbit to another that was closer to the system’s centre of gravity. It was easy to make that step down but stepping back up into a more comfortable orbit was… a bitch. A lot of it was down to the fact that, despite doing all I was supposed to do with applying for jobs, making myself presentable, volunteering, finding part-time work, etc, the actual movement depended on a nudge from someone else. Of course, a negative decision by them isn’t (intentionally) personal but that doesn’t make it any better.

ASIDE: Actually, the skewed distribution curve might explain why it feels like there is a mass in the middle of the Life system when, in reality, we’re all orbiting each other. If there are more people in the lower orbits / first part of the graph, then their mass is pulling us all in.

So, continuing the work theme. As much as I quite like my job, I don’t want my boss’s. I will never be the kind of person who sits in a job interview and answers the question “Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?” with “Doing your job”. I have learnt, over time, that I can’t cope with the stress of trying to fit a 50 hour working week into my life. Especially if I’m only paid for 37.5 of them. This is partly down to the AS (I would guess). It’s also down to the fact that I have other interests – like a niece who I like to torment at least once a week, two Hellhounds that require pee-breaks if not a full on walk several times a day, the desire to grow up to be Oliver Reed’s interpretation of Athos when I have a sword in hand, an urge to write that tends to affect my mental balance badly if I don’t give in to it. There have been other hobbies that required more time than my work and responsibilities would permit and these are currently on hold until I work out a way to fit them in again (genealogy and blacksmithing spring to mind). This makes volunteering for more responsibility a very bad idea. I have no more time to be consumed unless I plan to give on sleeping.

To summarise using my Grand Theory again, it’s hard work pulling from a closer orbit / my current life to a further out orbit / more successful lifestyle – and I don’t have the skillset for most routes. But that doesn’t mean I’m not successful in my way. I have a pretty good salary for a job that pushes me but has some fantastic moments, I fence, I have Hellhounds, I’m involved with my family and I write in almost every moment of spare time that remains. I am comfortable, I don’t run out of the supermarket screaming, and I’m overall pretty happy. There are niggles but I’m working on it. I am a success. I am in a comfortable orbit.

Things I Remind Myself

Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way. Like I said, there are niggles. It is entirely possible for said niggles to get on top of me. That’s when I start reminding myself of the points we’ve already covered:

  1. My success can only be measured against my own performance
    Forget what everyone else does or manages. I have my own starting point, my own end point, my own limits, my own abilities, my own skillset. Part of being an adult, a mature human being, is recognising what these are and making the best use of them.
  2. Push myself a bit
    I can only find my limits by trying new things. Whether that’s making sure I buy a new type of food or drink to try when I go shopping, taking up a new hobby, reading something by a new author… “Do something each day that scares you”. Okay, so I’m not that brave, but I try to push my boundaries every now and again to make sure they’re where I left them.
  3. Admit what didn’t work
    As motivational posters et al like to say, the only wasted experience is one you haven’t learnt from. Even if it’s only learning that I should never, ever, ever contemplate doing that again.
  4. Make sure I have an emergency exit
    Again, something I had to learn with experience was making contingency plans – and accepting I would occasionally have to do things that weren’t necessarily… polite. My contingency plan for attending any convention, conference or bootcamp is to accept that I may have to just put everything in my bag and leave. I also learnt that life is what happens when I’m making other plans. Failure happens, things go wrong. I do my best to make sure that this can be taken into account and won’t have a knock on effect for other people. I try not to fear this so much that it stops me doing something I want to do. If I’ve agreed to it, I will at least try it out.
  5. My success can only be measured against my own performance
    I’ll say it again: Forget what everyone else does or manages. Be yourself. If you’re still here, you’re winning.

In Writing

While some epic works require the standard epic sweep of young adventurer becoming the ruler of the kingdom / continent / planet / galaxy, most stories are somewhat smaller. I haven’t worked out a way to make the everyday interesting enough to write a story about someone like me just living their life but there are bits and pieces that can make it into a work. A short story can be about a mini adventure, the unusual in an ordinary person’s life. All it may change is their outlook on life – or it could bring the world crashing down around everyone’s ears. Think Crossed Genre’s Menial anthology [External Link].

Not everyone wants to rule the world (Tears for Fears lyrics aside). Some people just want to get through the day, some want to plan their future, some wish they didn’t have one. I have a distinct memory of one of the soldiers given some character space in David Gemmell’s Legend comparing himself (badly) to farmers. I’m pretty sure he used the comparison in other books, too. These soldiers and warriors expressed the opinion that true courage wasn’t in deciding to fight an enemy for how long a battle lasted but in being a farmer and doing the same tasks every year for little or no reward, yet holding the rest of the economy on their backs. (Definitely true of faux-medieval worlds, true of current world logistics, even if we tend to forget that food-production is kind of a big deal.)

Similarly, characters in Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion’s World series have expressed opinions on the comparison between questing paladins, who are bright and shiny and active, versus the leaders who must stay there, day after day, and hold order against the grind of everyday pettiness – as well as encouraging the people that follow them to keep it together. Bravery and drive comes in many forms, and it’s worth remembering that when putting a character together. By extension, their measures of success must also vary – whether they learn to accept their own success against the measure of other people or not.

Success isn’t about being famous or visible, it’s about keeping going. Bravery isn’t about fighting orcs (although that can be considered a brave thing to do), it’s about doing the things you don’t want to.

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