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Mediocre Excellence, Or, Excellence By Mediocrity: How To Achieve Greatly By Doing Almost Nothing

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Mediocre Excellence

“What would be really interesting to see…is how beautiful things grow out of s##t. Because nobody ever believes that. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they’d somehow appeared there and formed in his head—before he, and all he had to do was write them down and they would kind of be manifest to the world. But I think what’s so interesting, and what would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that things come out of nothing, things evolve out of nothing.

If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted—they have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that—then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life, where you can say, ‘well, I know that things come from nothing very much, and start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something.’

You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. And I think this would be important for people to understand, because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work.”

Brian Eno [Emphasis Added]

“We take greater pains to persuade others we are happy than in trying to think so ourselves.”
Confucius (supposedly)

“You can do anything if you stop trying to do everything”
Oliver Emberton

“We are more interested in making others believe we are happy than in trying to be happy ourselves.”
François de la Rochefoucauld

The idea I’m about to share with you, like pretty much every idea I’ve ever shared with you, sits on that fine line between profundity and obviousness. So, either it’s going to sound really deep or too obvious to go without saying. My own personal experience is that, in many contexts, obvious things need to be said. “Common sense isn’t common”, as one AJATTeer once put it. And even if we “know” something, we need to hear it many times in many ways until we actually start to live it.

If you think about it, that’s why parents worry so much about their kids running with a bad crowd. You’re not gonna…well, you’re highly unlikely to pick up any bad habits from just one outing with a bad crowd. Or even two. Or even three! In fact, you’ll probably have fun. But over time, you’ll become desensitized to their attitudes, to their behavior. Their worldview will become yours and their behavior will become yours. This is not simply true of bad behavior; it’s true of all behavior. The process is subtle and gradual but inexorable. You become like the people and ideas you spend time with.

Crap! Two paragraphs in and I already said something obvious! And it’s not even the thing I want to talk about today. OK, back on topic. Don’t take parenting advice from me, by the way, I only have cats.

In my life so far, I’ve tried many things. Projects. Initiatives. Schemes. Experiments. A lotta experiments. And I’ve found that there is one mindset, one way of doing things that always (despite appearances) seems to work best. For want of a better name, I call this mindset “mediocre excellence”.

“Mediocre excellence” (mediocrellence? lol); I love how oxymoronic it sounds. At the same time, it’s hard 1 for me to explain what it looks like, let alone what if feels like, but I know when I’m doing it and I know what it is and I know what it feels like. It’s just…hard for me to put into words. I’m going to use words to try to describe it to you, but these words will not work 100% because this is something that transcends description, or at least my powers of description.

Another name for mediocre excellence would be “functional excellence2. Mediocre excellence is about doing what works. Not doing what’s perfect, or even what’s good, or even what’s “right”, but what works. It’s about doing what’s good enough. Mediocre excellence is about executing simple, concrete, obvious actions and processes, perhaps best encapsulated in the famous Jim Rohn maxim: “[Success is easy…but] the things that are easy to do are easy not to do”.

The word “mediocre” has negative connotations. This is a deliberate word choice on my part because it is essential that you disabuse yourself of the notion that doing difficult things or doing wonderful things or big things will get you results. No, doing not-nothings is what gets you results. All those other things just get you tired.

mediocre  (mdkr)
Moderate to inferior in quality; ordinary. See Synonyms at average.

“Mediocre”. It’s usually used as an insult. This is good. Things need to be so small, so easy that you insult your intelligence; they insult your sense of scale, your sense of propriety; they even insult your aesthetic sense. People should look down on you a bit. If people aren’t looking down on you, there’s probably a problem.

The mediocrity is in doing things that are so easy, that they cause you no pain. So easy that they cause you no strain. So easy that you can’t believe they count. So easy that you almost (or totally) doubt that they even help. Here are some examples, although there exist many more 3:

  • 10,000 sentences (when it was the core method): (“What? All I do is read them aloud?! But that’s TOO EASY!!!”)
  • Turning on a Chinese cartoon and leaving it on (“but I’m not even paying attention!”).
  • Using only one earphone instead of two (because you can’t be bovvered)

It’s about taking actions that are so far within your ability to take that you…yeah, you get it. So there’s basically no comfort zone departure. You are working fully within your ability. No stretch. You stretched when you chose a language you weren’t born into. No more stretching required. I’m reminded of an article I once read, an interview with the coach of Japan’s national synchronized swimming team, and she said (I paraphrase): “I train my girls to give 80%. Because you’re not going to be able to give 100% in a real match, so we train at and for 80%”. Maybe that quote doesn’t hit you like it hit me, but…in world where people say things that “110%”; it was freightrainful of fresh air 😉 . My muscles relaxed just reading it.

So, where does the excellence come in? Well, it turns out that the “magic”, if I might be so bold, is in the process. It’s kind of like how digging ditches gives you Greek god statue muscles; you weren’t trying to look statuesque; it just happened. You just wanted, I dunno, beer and comics and tuition money for the summer. The process made it happen. The process made you(r body) beautiful. The magic is indirect and imperceptible. You don’t force or control it directly; you guide it; you influence it. So it’s not like scoring a try in rugby where you’re there and you’ve got the ball and you take the ball over the line and you put it down all nice and firm.

Now, this may seem at odds with all the AJATT talk of going “all out” and” in it to win it” and “do moderation in moderation“, but I assure you, it works…kinda. More or less. It hangs together. The trick in all this is sticking around long enough for Nature to do its work, to work its magic.

You don’t have to have to work to make your heart beat or digest your food or even grow hair/taller. It’s not a conscious process. You don’t have to work but you do have to help. You support the process by, well, making sure you don’t die. You do that by not stepping into traffic, not jumping off buildings and not going into rooms where you can’t see or hear Japanese 🙂 . It’s so easy that you don’t even think about it, but that doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything.

Hmmm…I still don’t feel like I’ve communicated it to you yet and we’re kinda treading old ground all over again. Let’s try again…

Mediocre excellence is all about:

  • Obvious — doing the obvious
    • What’s staring me in the face?
    • What opportunities are available to me?
    • What can I think of to do?
  • Easy — doing the easy
    • What’s would be easy for me to do now?
    • What would be fun to do right now?
    • What wouldn’t require much effort/energy?
  • Convenient — doing what’s convenient, what’s at hand
    • What’s do I have the tools to do right now?

It escapes me now who said it or where I read it, but there was this guy, I think he may have been French and old school (pre-20th century) and he said, basically, that ordinary people try to do what they can’t do but heroes just do what they can do. And, again, that’s the mediocrity part. You’re always doing things within your ability to do. You only do things you have the tools, energy and desire to do at the time. And so on the surface, this is incredibly mediocre. Nothing earth-shattering is happening.

You only do things you have the tools, energy and desire to do at the time. You don’t try to surf the Internet when you’ve got no Internet connection. You don’t try to read books in the shower. You don’t try to do kanji reps in your sleep. You don’t try to concentrate when you’re tired. You don’t try to pick up ice with chopsticks. You don’t try to thread proverbial needles when you’re too sleepy to focus. You do only what is easy, convenient and obvious at the time. Steven Johnson would call this working within the “adjacent possible“. It’s so small and incremental, like climbing up and down steps, that you have no sense of difficulty or effort or amazingness or even progress. It’s just the thing within arm’s reach. It’s just the next step.

mediocre (ˌmi diˈoʊ kər)
of only ordinary or moderate quality; barely adequate.
[French médiocre, from Latin mediocris : medius, middle]

Mediocre excellence is all about identifying and then choosing these ridiculously easy, ridiculously doable things. Mediocre excellence is also about avoiding the temptation to fly up the steps because it would look cooler. In my personal experience, this is the biggest pitfall, bigger even than a failure to appreciate that small things add up, that dust can pile up into a mountain (to quote a Japanese saying), is the desire to look cool by doing big, hard, complex things flawlessly. To “show” “the world” that you’re “trying”.

Don’t be fooled by my scruffy clothes and soft voice. It’s all a front. I am positively plagued by a desire to look cool; there is a part of me that is still trying to impress people from first grade (not to mention high school and second grade and total strangers in the street)! It’s there. And it’s stupid. And I’ve learned to suppress/ignore/avoid/bypass it in certain contexts but not yet in all situations and certainly not at all times. Which is not to say that you should hide your practice (i.e. do your reps, shadowing and CCSing in private), because that’s the same coolness desire in a different form; it’s just the countersignaling version of the same thing.

Mediocre excellence is about getting off your own back and letting it go because good enough is good enough. And more than 0 is good enough. Don’t try to be amazing, just be. There. Doing It. Showing up. You won when you showed up. There’s nothing left to prove.

Mediocre excellence is about recognizing that:

  1. Most things in life aren’t important, and therefore don’t need doing
  2. A few things in life are important and but (new word 😛 )
  3. The important things are better done badly — mediocrely — than left undone. A bad or half-buttocked job beats 0 every time. Better to drink tap water than no water. Better to breathe even stuffy air than no air.

And, yes, “they” might laugh at you. You might become a laughingstock. But what of it? We’re all maggot food anyhow. What do you care what other maggot food thinks? 4 Most likely people will be indifferent. More importantly, don’t make the situation worse by giving yourself difficult things to do. Enjoy the mediocrity. Don’t try so hard to be cool that you end up hating your own life.

I’m totally still talking about getting used to Japanese, by the way 😉 . Don’t try to take a “life lesson” or some other such scrap away from this. I won’t let you!

Um…yeah…still doesn’t quite get it across. I haven’t…ugh. The feeling of mediocre excellence. How relaxing it is. How liberating. How easy. From what I’ve been able to observe of him, I think B. F. Skinner (my favorite psychologist of all time) was a mediocre excellence type of guy. Just running simple, straightforward experiments (mediocre — anybody could do it; anybody could understand it) and then seeing and getting profound results (excellence — his name lives on etc.). But you know what? Whatever. This is good enough.

Mediocre excellence doesn’t get it right and doesn’t get it done; mediocre excellence gets it started. Mediocre excellence never tries to get it right the first time. Mediocre excellence never tries to get it done in one shot. Mediocre excellence just tries to get closer with each shot 5. Mediocre excellence whips up a temporary solution and improves it gradually.

Since mediocre excellence isn’t about doing big, hard things, it shouldn’t surprise you that it’s not about doing clever, brave things either. So you don’t need to be or act like your favorite movie heroes, Captain Kirk (brave) and Khan Noonien Singh (clever). At best, you get to be cheeky. Yeah, that’s it. Mediocre excellence is “cheeky”. Bravery and cleverness are finite and domain-dependent. Cheekiness goes everywhere. Cheek is perhaps brave, but in a cowardly, understated way; it’s sometimes clever, but in a dumb, non-self-conscious way. That’s what you want. Or not, I dunno — I haven’t really thought this part through 6 😛 .

If you were to ask me: “what is the guiding philosophy of AJATT in two words?”, I would say “mediocre excellence”. Not because I woudn’t like to to be more perfect or more impressive, but because mediocrity is sustainable. 7 And what’s sustained, grows. And what grows, well, gets big. And big things — big vocabularies, for example — look like excellence, look like magic, look like genius, look like skill. And maybe they are but, all you’re ever doing is what’s obvious, easy and convenient at the time.

No push. No harshness. Never break a sweat. Don’t let your conscience be your guide; your conscience is a crap guide: it’s been co-opted; it’s been compromised; it’s been socialized; it’s been ASMized 8. It will only lead you to self-loathing and struggle for the sake of struggle. You accomplish the great thing, an “everything” (a functional approximation of “everything”), not necessarily by doing nothing (although…there’s certainly a place for that), but by doing things that feel like nothing.

Series Navigation<< When Are You Going to Stop Trying to Score Only Three-Pointers, Start Making Friends with Mediocrity and Start Realizing That Excellence Comes From the Rejection of Perfection?Not Nothing >>


  1. (maybe I just need smaller pieces, right? 😀 )
  2. Or: “excellence by/through/via/from mediocrity”.
  3. Perhaps an infinite number? Or maybe just functionally infinite 🙂
  4. If we live forever, then you have forever to look cool again. So don’t worry. And if we’re maggot food, then we’re maggot food. So don’t worry.
  5. A lesson learned golfing this summer 🙂
  6. And even if I had…
  7. 羽生善治:「人は、普通に続けられることしか続かない。」 (“People only keep doing things that are easy to do”) — [ 結果を出し続けるために (ツキ、プレッシャー、ミスを味方にする法則): 羽生 善治: 本]
  8. Anglo-Saxon Masochism/Protest Worth Ethic

  14 comments for “Mediocre Excellence, Or, Excellence By Mediocrity: How To Achieve Greatly By Doing Almost Nothing

  1. Romuś
    September 1, 2013 at 00:06

    Some 2 years ago I suspended my Japanese Learning Project, because “it was too hard” and fell back to watching american TV-Serieses and stuff. Now I can watch university-level psycology, linguistics or neuroscience courses with almost-perfect comprehension. All because I didn’t let myself fall into a-certain-korean-song kraze last year and I stuck with learning English.
    BTW, think for a moment how great AJATT methodology is for learning English in the era of The ‘Net. It’s like you can lean back on your couch and it comes to you without you even trying. It’s like you don’t even have to search for content, because it finds you. Ads I’m talking about. Think for a moment how everything you loathe about “the information age” is working to benefit ME. Be arch!

  2. Aspiring
    September 1, 2013 at 22:13

    Excellent post

  3. Chris
    September 3, 2013 at 05:46

    At the risk of sounding cheesy, I think this whole article can be summed up in one movie scene:

  4. mark95427
    November 25, 2013 at 14:26

    I had not realized how convenient these bold lines are,

  5. Nino
    December 9, 2013 at 08:51

    Hey Khatz, I found this video that pretty much summarizes this article.:

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