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Can everyone stop saying “It’s okay to be mediocre”?

Just because there are some superhumans at Cambridge doesn’t mean the rest of us are talentless.

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We have a lot of conventional narratives at Cambridge. One of the most popular ones goes like this: “you were clever at school, very clever in fact. Your mum still thinks you’re very clever, but unfortunately your mum isn’t your supervisor (and if she is she’s a terrifying academic who only gives hugs on a biennial basis). In Cambridge, you’re surrounded by people who are at least as clever, most likely cleverer than you. What’s more, they do fifty-four extra-curriculars whilst you’re at home, avoiding your essay and experimenting with pasta-to-pesto ratios for the 8th time this week. You are mediocre, and it’s best to accept that to avoid heartbreak.”

A mediocre stock photo of a mediocre stock evening…

Why do we do buy into this narrative? In short, it’s comforting. By talking about our mediocrity, we share part of our vulnerability with others. This habit manifests itself in a very direct way on social media when we tag each other in memes humorously lamenting just how much we’re struggling (welcome to week five). This combination of humour and self-exposure is a great way to empathise in a stressful environment: it’s a way of saying “you might be shit, but don’t worry because I am too.” It’s safety in numbers. In moderation, this comfort is necessary. Cambridge terms are hard and we all have real setbacks.

But all too often the mediocrity narrative isn’t consoling us when we fail, but just protecting us from a fear of failure. It’s a lot easier to accept that “you’re going to be mediocre” than try to push yourself and fail. This is amplified particularly for freshers, when you barely know anyone properly , and when you already feel vulnerable socially and are probably suffering from a degree of imposter syndrome. If you don’t put your cleverness forward, no one can find you out for the fraud you are.

An arrogant fresher disagrees with his supervisor (decolourised, 2016)

At this point, you might object to my argument. You might think I’m implying that Cantabs should push themselves further despite the fact everyone is already overworked and fraying at the edges; there’s a serious problem of mental and physical health attached to this. However, this isn’t what I’m arguing for at all. We all work hard enough and achieve a lot, and this is the point. We should celebrate our own achievements, not compare them to those of others.

What I object to isn’t how we as students behave, but the language we use to talk about ourselves. By “accepting our mediocrity”, we are implicitly comparing ourselves to the brilliance of others. We might be refusing to compete, but we are still working on the assumption that life here is a competition. Of course, a lot of this competition is institutionalised within Cambridge: the cut-throat reputation of the class-lists, supervision work and deadlines.

"Accepting mediocrity" can seem to offer cover from scrutiny

The point is though that we’re inadvertently reinforcing this competitive mentality. To treat mediocrity, a relative term, as the norm is to say that success only comes when you’re better than other people. This language of mediocrity, plastered over social media, can hijack reality and convince us into doubting ourselves when we don’t need to. In this way, a self- depricating joke can easily transform into a firmly held belief.

In the end we’re left with a pretty boring binary culture, mediocrity on one side, excellence on the other. Instead, let’s take a little pride in our talents and achievements, no matter what shape, size or type. Eric Monkman may be cleverer than you but I bet he can’t neck a VK as fast as you can.* If you’re looking for an achievement, start with the fact you got into Cambridge.

*Consider that a challenge if you’re reading, Eric.