Measuring Up

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I’ve been known to straighten a picture or two when the host isn’t looking. My office is a wreck, but when it comes to doing something the way it’s supposed to be done, I have a strong inclination toward excellence. An office doesn’t have to be straight, but pictures do, right? I’m like this with editing, writing, painting (walls, that is) and manicuring my lawn. When I’m on hands and knees extracting a strawberry weed, my 82-year-old neighbor says, “Sam, you worry too much.” My spiritual director echoes, “It’s okay to let go a little.” My supervisor affirms, “Don’t pull an all-nighter trying to make better what is already great.” As much as I’d like to hear their counsel, I can’t help but ask, Don’t they care? The thing is, I know they do, so the problem must be with me. But am I really obsessed with details, or is this merely a healthy avoidance of being mediocre? Merriam-Webster includes an example with this usually distasteful word: “The dinner was delicious, but the desert was mediocre.” Could you imagine asking, “Waiter, might I have a piece of your Key Lime pie? I’ve heard it is simply mediocre and I can’t wait to try it!” Hardly. So what’s going on? Heather Holleman from Live with Flair got me thinking about mediocrity in a slightly new way. She’s a college writing teacher and she shared this recent classroom interaction:
"Sometimes I go around the room and ask students to introduce themselves by telling me what they were known for in high school…. A few days ago, one incredibly bright student said: ‘I was known for being good and not great. I was known for being mediocre.’ When I asked for more information, he said he played every sport but was never the star. He did well in all his classes but was never the best."
Here’s the part that got me:
“He didn't mind.”
My first thought was that this kid must be apathetic, lazy, or both. But Heather goes on:
"He wants to excel, but he knows his limits. He rests in what he can do well, even if it won't win a Nobel Prize or put him as quarterback on the team. He's thinking of who he can serve in his career, what he can contribute, and what he can change--even if he's not the star of the show. His identity has nothing to do with rising to the top…. He's working at top capacity despite the odds."
I’m not sure how much of my inclination toward excellence is a personality trait, an important principle of my Christian faith, or the result of a father who corrected nearly everything I did as a child. But I do know this: The fact that these probable sources collectively contain good and bad elements indicate that there is a level of dysfunction in my approach to excellence. For starters, I don't know how to say something is good enough when I know it is but my insides scream, "Not yet!" Perhaps I should listen to Heather’s student. And my neighbor, spiritual director, supervisor, wife, editor, children, friends… Because maybe they’re all trying to adjust a slightly crooked picture. Stop over to say hello to Heather and read the rest of her post on Embracing Mediocrity. I’m looking forward to meeting Heather in October where both of us will be speaking at Faith for Thought, a conference that discusses connections between faith and our everyday lives. In the meantime, feel free to tell me to let go a little. I need to hear it. "Tape Measures" by jek in the box. Used with permission. Post written by Sam Van Eman.