Landisa: An open letter to over achievers – Embrace your mediocrity

2019-11-22 07:52
Binwe Adebayo

Binwe Adebayo

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There is nothing that I wish for more than mediocrity. Yes, you heard me. Take me out of the over achievers' category. I want to be mediocre, and I'll tell you why. 

When I was just turned five, my mom had me in piano lessons, a child theatre group and every sport the school offered. While most children knocked off on Friday at 14:00 to a play date or a social karate class, I had an extra piano lesson, Math tutoring or debating. And what is learned as excellent cannot be unlearned.

As it stands, at 26, I have just completed a Master's degree, I run a creative consulting business and I will write any time I get the chance – even for an unreasonable deadline. That's what overachievers do – because it's all we know.

Nearly 20 years after my summer afternoons with Schubert, Bach and Camilleri, my only Friday appointment is with my therapist Greg, who is helping me learn how to be normal, how to have non-competitive hobbies, how to embrace the altar of mediocrity.

It's no surprise then that the tweets [read them here, let's not waste words] by popular tweep "Dr Yummy Mummy" were not just startling, but downright triggering. Like many of my friends and fellow users expressed, the badge of high performance is not all it's cracked up to be – and celebrating participation, diligence and doing your best cannot be lumped together with being "mediocre".

Looking back, I cannot remember the number of times I spent crying in a high school mark over a 70% score, or throwing up before one of my violin exams. Most of my competitive childhood life felt like an Eminem music video scene – all weak knees and sweaty palms.

My first and only non-competitive hobby used to be freewriting, and (clearly), even that was not safe from the academic-capitalist complex that rules me. While I remain immensely grateful to my superpower immigrant academic parents for carving a masterful life for us out of a sudden move across the continent, I am well aware that the logic of sacrifice, push and crash later benefits no one in the long term.

Many of us in our 20s and 30s are battling stomach ulcers and chronic panic attacks under the weight of stress. Just this year, Netcare reported a dramatic increase in the number of day patients seeking mental health support. And I believe them, because I've been there.

In 2016, after nearly a year of going to work at 06:30 and getting home after 20:00 or 21:00, I developed extremely low levels of vitamin D, resulting in – amongst many sexy symptoms – my hair falling out. I was only 22. Again, I say, let us please achieve some mediocrity. Because this tail-chasing, top of the pops hamster wheel of life is not high performance and it's not an achievement. It's the desperate hoarding of external validity and the cost of our true purposes – which goes far beyond a test score or fancy title.

One of the lasting legacies of my own experience is damaging self-talk. Many of us have seen the hundreds of memes bemoaning "overthinking". It's a practice I have struggled with, because it is at once crippling and self-indulgent.

The legacy of our parents' helicopter-loud obsession with success is also, I would argue, an obsession with the self. The self, in this case, is an inadequate, incomplete being, who, according to our anti-participation certificate parents, just needs to stay longer at the library, or on the sports field to be their best selves.

Now, it's important to be clear that the words "mediocre" or "lunch bar face" were not thrown around in my home – and often I would beam widely as I told (unbelieving) people how my parents (both academics) didn't put much pressure on me at all. Later, in the majestic unlearning that is one's early 20s, I realised that it's not just about physical and verbal pressure, it's about the values upheld in the home.

Reflecting now, much of my overthinking stems from the fact that my dad was "the first black" this or that my mom finished her PhD while raising two young children. What could I possibly achieve in comparison? How would I measure up? What would people say if I didn't 'make it'? What excuse would I have with all these opportunities? Now, after getting drunk on Johannesburg's ambition Kool-Aid, contrasted by a quiet, two-year, God-ordained odyssey to the Eastern Cape, my perspective has shifted.

I know that the great legacies of my parents' lives are my dad's determination and optimism; and my mom's affection and affinity for saying what you feel. Hopefully, for the next generation is doesn't take two decades and a therapist's bill that would give you a heart attack.

But it's not just down to parenting. Advertising, particularly in popular industries like motoring, sports and wellness, talk about the unseen hours that help you emerge into a perfect butterfly specimen at 23. (Whose life is that anyway?)

One of my old favourite advertisements of all time features Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in an Under Armour ad. In it, we see him shovelling down unsettling amounts of food, training all hours of the night, and even throwing up during a workout. The tagline? Relax, you'll get there eventually.

Yeah right. The tagline, well-written as sharp as a scalpel to the heart of the overachiever says: "It's what you do in the dark that puts you in the light." And we've taken that seemingly sensible, but deeply empty wisdom to heart – and social media appears to be the place for it too. We have allowed, no, welcomed, a whole genre of Forex-trading, fake Rolex buying overnight 'successes' to press on with their "they sleep, we grind" mantra; challenging anyone who dares close their eyes beyond three hours a night to re-evaluate the quality of life they're living.

In his "Life Round Here" collaboration with Chance the Rapper, James Blake offers us some good advice: Save yourself first. It's a simple message, but one that cuts through all the temptation to perform your proficiency, so that you won't be labelled. If mediocre is a happy, productive, reasonably healthy woman excited (but unsure) about her future, I'm happy to be just that. Frame the participation trophy, do the things that give you joy. Save yourself first.

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