Culture challenge of the week: mediocrity
When an air band called Airpocalypse made the final cut on "America's Got Talent" (NBC's talent search variety show), the teens and young adults visiting my friend erupted in protest.
"What kind of talent does it take to play in an air band?"
"Anyone can do that!"
"What's so great about an air band, no matter how good they are?"
I agree. An air band's rendition of a song, no matter how polished or fun, just isn't "excellence." It's only a talent competition, and we can disagree about the merits of air bands. But the image of an air band — playing imaginary instruments with great gusto and raving to the audience that the competition means "everything" to them — symbolizes the mediocrity infecting our culture and our youths.
An Icelandic proverb, "Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating," suggests the two faces of mediocrity: first, spending significant time and outsized effort on things that don't really matter, and second, spending minimal time and halfhearted efforts on things that do.
We easily recognize mediocrity in half-baked efforts. It's the "whatever" mentality, the "good enough" attitude that wants to slide by with minimal effort — unless there's a promised reward. One English teacher shared her frustration that the margin notes and verbal suggestions she offered on student papers, hoping to spur a desire for excellence, were typically met with bored faces, shoulder shrugs, and "OK, whatever." Sometimes they'd follow up with a question, "Well, is it good enough to pass?"
It's harder, though, to recognize the hidden face of mediocrity — pursuing perfection in things that don't really matter (while neglecting the things that really do). It's insidious in today's culture. It begins with the schools and media telling our children that no particular moral standards or values are better than any other. "It really doesn't matter what you do," they say, "as long as it makes you happy." That's a recipe not only for moral disaster, but also for mediocrity across the board.
Peter Drucker, the late business management guru, pointed out the futility of time spent on meaningless tasks according to misplaced priorities. "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." He's exactly right. Our children's time on earth is limited — and precious. They need our help to spend that time wisely and to rise above the culture of mediocrity.
How to save your family by cultivating a vision of greatness:
The antidote for mediocrity is to give our children a vision of greatness.
Give them a vision worthy of their time and effort. Affirm their own infinite value, the higher purpose to which they've been called, and the ideas worth living and dying over. Help them see America's exceptionalism and to value her freedoms.
Set high expectations. Hold them accountable.
Teach them to give their best in every effort and to serve others consistently. (Mediocrity feeds on selfishness and laziness.) Even when a project is hard, dull or not what they want to do, the struggle for excellence strengthens their heart and character.
Show them that excellence comes from the heart. Inspire your children with stories of heroes and real people who have overcome great odds to accomplish much or to serve others well.
And finally, surround your children with people and resources that will encourage them to reject mediocrity and pursue excellence. For starters, share and discuss with your teen two books, written by brothers Alex and Brett Harris: "Start Here: Doing Hard Things Right Where You Are" (2010) and "Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations" (2008).
Nothing great comes easy.
But a vision of greatness always beats a culture of mediocrity — even on "America's Got Talent."
• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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