Fearing Mediocrity

I recently gave a talk to students from the Thunderbird School of Global Management about what my “typical” day as an entrepreneur in human resources looks like. Over lunch and during my presentation I told them how I sell my services, that I get to work on projects that I truly enjoy, that my schedule is flexible but that I work seven days per week, and how partnerships have been vital to the growth of my brand.

During lunch, a student asked me; “Why did you take the risk and leave your corporate job?” Without much thought, I said; “My fear of mediocrity was greater than my fear of entrepreneurial failure.

I absolutely loved working for my last employer. The organization was amongst the elite in the industry in terms of technology usage, how it treated its’ employees, and in the level of service it provides. I continue to communicate with people inside the company, and they still feel very blessed to work there. I don’t blame them.

So why did I leave? Because day in and day out, I was not able to spend 100% of my time doing the things that I love doing the most. The organization needed my position to take on projects that didn’t match well with my personal vision or value proposition. So, I feared becoming a mediocre employee that could not deliver what the organization deserved. Coming to that realization was certainly difficult, but very liberating at the same time.

Merriam-Webster defines mediocre as being “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance”. Conversely, it defines excellence as being “very good of its kind, eminently good, or first-class”. In an age of extreme competitiveness and hyper-specialization, having skills or producing results of moderate or low quality is not going to win you any points with your boss or your clients. However, being first-class will certainly earn you a seat at high-powered tables and allow you to become indispensable.

A few questions you must ask yourself to determine where you fall on the hypothetical mediocrity-excellence continuum:

  1. When you wake up, are you excited to go to work?
  2. What percentage of your day are you able to use your strengths?
  3. What are you doing when you lose track of time?
  4. Are you able to push the envelope and live on the edge of the box…not in it?
  5. Are you deemed a subject matter expert at what you do?
  6. Does life feel like it is passing you by?
  7. How many times per day do you feel sick to your stomach? (I know someone who said when he felt this way that he knew he was headed down the right path.)
  8. Do you have autonomy in your work, the ability to master your work, and feel a sense of purpose when you work?

Depending on your answers to the above questions, where do you think you fall on the continuum? There is no right or wrong answer. There are seven billion people on the planet and they would all place themselves at different points.

If you haven’t quite found your niche yet, that is okay. Begin exploring your day-to-day activity through the lens of the above eight questions. When you find you can answer yes to a majority or all of the questions, you’ll know that you don’t fear failure as much as you fear mediocrity.