Are You Settling for Mediocrity?

Today, on my first day of school as a high school junior, I realized a rather shocking thing. I’ve settled for being mediocre.

I probably should have realized this earlier. For one, I was allowing myself to feel happy with a lower grade than I knew I could get. I was also handing in things late and just generally not doing what I knew I could do. But I’d justified my less-then-great performance for so long, telling myself that since everyone else was getting a B or even C in the class that my B+ was extraordinary and those over-achieving straight-A-ers were just working themselves too hard, that I soon succumbed: I set the bar lower and lower until one day–today–I took a step back and saw just how little I was letting myself achieve.

It began in my very first class of the day. You know the first day of school? When you’re all pumped and ready to start working (but as soon as you actually get any work you’re quickly reluctant?) When you can feel liquid motivation coursing through your veins? Well, that’s how I felt walking through the doors. Like I was ready to make this a great year.

We got the syllabus, read over some things, did some lame “how was your summer” ice breakers… and then we got the class grading rubric. I looked down at the 1-5 grading scale, with 1 being awful participation and 5 being a stellar student. I read through all of the requirements and said to myself… “Hmm. On this list, I’d probably be a 4.”

And that was when I knew.

Since when did I look at a scale out of 5 and decide that a 4 was absolutely perfect? And in fitness class? The 4 scale read, “effort is fairly consistent… shows good improvement… works hard at least 70% of the time.” But the 5 was only a small step up! “Hustles… gives top effort 100% of the time… noticeable improvement.” Somehow, I saw more of myself in the description of a mostly great 4 instead of a radically awesome 5… and decided I was okay with that. It continued to happen the rest of the day.

Teachers went over their late work policies. “10% off if it’s late.” “You get a 0 if I see you doing it in class.” “Late work is not accepted after 2 days.” I found myself nodding along and actually feeling like I would need to remember this. But why remember late work policies unless you’re planning on turning in assignments late on a regular basis? I began to notice a lax attitude in myself that said, “if you can get away with it and still have a 3.5 GPA, go for it.” And this is coming from a high school junior involved in drama, speech, class leadership, an AP course, debate team, and drama. I am anything but a lazy, unmotivated student. I couldn’t believe how far I’d fallen when, in middle school, I was disappointed about a 98% on a history test. (Well… those were open book. And it was middle school. But that isn’t the main point.)

Being surrounded by people who expect high grades is great–I myself am still annoyed by marks some people would consider a miracle to get. It might be considered below-average in my book… at least, I think. But is it? Today I found I was becoming more and more complacent, sliding slowly but surely into a place where Bs and 4s and 10%-offs were alright. What about the C I had in History for a while last year? Was that going to be okay, had it stuck around? Would I have deemed the class too hard, the teacher too unreasonable, the work too long and the instructions too vague? And now I know for a fact that yes–had the poor performance persisted, I probably would have ended up thinking a C was just fine.

I don’t have time for this. This nerd gets a B+ and thinks she needs to get upset? I struggle to get Cs. So clearly she must think I’m really dumb.

I felt pretty stupid writing all this, complaining about my A-s and B+s when many of my friends get Ds or even Fs on exams they studied hard for. It’s really uncomfortable when you see others struggle and wonder why? Is it really that hard? But believe it or not, I know where you’re coming from, and I understand. It is really that hard, sometimes. Maybe you barely get by, had to get a GED because you dropped out of high school, or can’t do math to save your life.

Please understand that I don’t think you’re mediocre, stupid, or not trying hard enough. Every person has strengths and weaknesses, and no matter how many times you’ve heard it, the way you learn and grow is going to be uniquely you. What’s most important is how well you know you can perform. If you have dyslexia and can’t get above a C in English because of a problem you can’t prevent–that’s the best you can do. If your brain isn’t wired for math and you have no idea how to graph a line equation, let alone one with exponents strapped on–you’re trying your best, even if your best isn’t a passing grade. Don’t ever let anyone tell you’re not trying hard enough or that you’re stupid when you’re already doing the best you can.

The problem I’m talking about is settling for less. Mediocrity. Lowering the bar. It’s when you could do the math homework, but you’d rather play tetris. It’s when you know you could get a C; but you can still pass with a D, so you aim for that. It’s when you know you could do better, but because you don’t have to… you don’t.

That’s what I realized in fitness class today. That’s what shocked me–not that I was okay with a B, but that I was okay with settling for less than I know I could do.

I’ve always thought of myself as a great student who just sometimes turned in things a little late. But I’ve also always thought that, hey, I could do better, but I don’t have to. Maybe I’m a better test-taker. Maybe I’m better at cramming. Maybe I’ve got a less-hectic home life that you don’t get the luxury of having. There are so many reasons why I might theoretically be a mostly-As person and you might not be: and none of them are your fault.

What is your fault? Knowing you’re better and not doing better. That kind of complacency spirals downwards into a pit you might never recover from. You start slacking now, and soon enough you’ll be fired because you have a poor work ethic–why do it if someone else will? I can turn it in late, it’s not crucial. No one else files budget reports, so I won’t either. This is a serious issue. And it’s also one that you can address.

The best way to address mediocrity is to ignore all other options but the one that leads to excellence.

Back in fitness class, I looked at my rubric for a while longer. Then, I slowly tore my gaze from that easy-to-get 4 and focused solely on the 5. I tuned out the late-work policies, careful to pay them little attention and not even attempt to remember which teacher accepted late work and for how many days. If I wasn’t going to turn in anything late, why would I even need to know this? I cut out all options that involved doing worse than I knew I could.

The most surprising thing about this is that it’s only when you cut out the easy ways that you realize just how often you take them. I found myself wondering, “do I have to do that? Or can I just do xyz and do it faster and easier?” And not in a good way.

I’m all for making my life easy–if it’s an easier way, I’m probably all for it. I’m also for pushing myself as hard as I can to see how good I can get. And sometimes, taking the easy way out, turning in something late, writing bigger to take up more space, doing as little as possible just as long as you pass… that’s not getting better or pushing yourself.

The only way to grow is to be challenged. If you suck at math, the only way it’s going to get easier is if you do the math. The same goes for all walks of life. Work hard, get better. Have grit and determination. Settling for less is only cheating you out of a more worthwhile life.

How are you settling for mediocrity? And how will you cut out all paths but the one to success?

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