On the joy of mediocrity

Making the case for not going pro

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy,” says climber Alex Honnold in Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary charting his free solo ascent of El Capitan, considered the most extraordinary achievement in the sport – ever.  

His words struck me because even though I’m happy and cozy, I still want to achieve great things. I know I’ll never be number one at something like Honnold is, but there are many levels of greatness beneath.

A writer, for example, might win the Nobel Prize for Literature which is arguably the pinnacle of a writing career. Beneath that, they might win a respected prize like the Man Booker or a Pulitzer. Beneath that, they might become an international bestseller. Beneath that, they might become a domestic bestseller. Beneath that, they might find a solid readership which sustains a long-term writing career.

I’d be pretty happy if my career crested with a Sunday Times bestseller. In pursuing that dream, however, I’ve turned something I love into another metric against which to measure myself. That’s largely okay. Writing is my passion and my job, and if it consumes most of my time and energy, then so be it.

What’s more of a problem is that my secondary passion, travel, has also become a job. This would be great if that old quote – find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life – was entirely true. In reality, there are still emails to field, clients to please, payments to chase and deadlines to hit. My passions have been commodified and have consequently lost just a little bit of the joy that comes from doing something you love just because you love it.

This isn’t unique to me of course. A collective pursuit of excellence seems to plague the world of leisure. One’s hobby isn’t just a hobby anymore; it’s a side hustle or a stepping stone to something more impressive. A jogger isn’t jogging but training for a marathon. A poet isn’t just reflecting but also pursuing publication. A yogi isn’t meditating but sculpting the perfect body. Whether you like angling, singing or surfing, you better be skilled at it, or else what’s the point? If you can’t package your hobby in a pleasing, public way, is it even worth having?

My answer – an unequivocal yes – came to me last week as an 11-year-old girl helped me unbridle a horse named Dreamer. The girl had been riding for six years and had an easy, natural manner with Dreamer which made me, an adult three times her age, feel distinctly inferior. That’s the bloody annoying thing about horse riding: some five year olds can do it better than me.

That’s not to say I’m a terrible rider; I’m just mediocre. My skills are more or less commensurate to the time I’ve invested (a dozen lessons in 2011 and a dozen lessons now, punctuated by some half-day trips and a seven-day ride). That said, I still have trouble posting on the right diagonal without glancing down, I lose my rhythm when applying leg aids and have not once cantered on the correct lead unaided. If that parlance makes little sense, take pity on me who’s had to learn what feels like a completely new language.

But here’s the thing: I don’t mind! I don’t mind that Becky, my instructor, must have thought I was an idiot when I took two weeks to understand why I could only swap direction (or ‘change the rein’) in certain places in the arena, or when she showed me five times over five weeks how to fasten the neck strap (or was it the throat latch?) and I still couldn’t do it. I have inexplicable trouble with gauges, clasps, zips, buckles, knots and locks which means untacking a horse frequently baffles me. I do feel stupid – especially when the 11-year-old does it so easily – but that’s okay.

I don’t even mind that I’ve fallen off a horse, been kicked by a horse, been stepped on by a horse, resulting in some pretty magnificent bruises. Being a mediocre rider is incredibly freeing. There is a pure, unadulterated joy in learning a skill and trying to get better, but not needing or striving to.

There is pleasure in mastering a skill and pursuing greatness in a field, but striving for excellence in everything we do stifles the joy to be found in the mere act of doing. Hobbies shouldn’t feel like work. Isn’t that why we actually work? To trade our daily labour for access to higher pursuits? If this then becomes a struggle for excellence, it undermines the very definition of leisure. Mediocrity grants us the freedom to slow down and look around; to be average, ordinary, middle of the road. That in itself is worth commending.

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