Should we aim for mediocrity?

Sick of aiming for excellence and feeling miserable when you fall short? You’re not alone. Explore the upsides of imperfection, lowered expectations and outright failure with philosopher Daniel Milo, writer Avram Alpert, School of Life teacher Sarah Stein Lubrano and Zahra Dhanani, who has adopted the “good enough” life.

If an imperfect existence is good enough for giraffes, it's good enough for us, says philosopher Daniel Milo

Author Daniel Milo points to the giraffe as a perfect example of an animal in nature that may be flawed in design but 'good enough to survive.' (Joosep Martinson/Getty Images for IAAF)

*Originally published on March 12, 2020.

Sick of aiming for excellence and feeling miserable when you fall short? You're not alone.

Philosopher Daniel Milo suggests a solution: embrace a "good enough" life instead.

"The more we pursue excellence … the more our lives will be miserable," Milo tells IDEAS.

And Toronto resident Zahra Dhanani agrees. 

"Everything out there right now is about 'live your best life!' Everything is a promise for greatness. And it's not," says Dhanani.

Just over five years ago, the lawyer and activist decided to downsize her own career ambitions in favour of the ordinary human connection that she craved.

In 2015, Zahra Dhanani left her job as a full-time lawyer to open a people-centred 'community hub' convenience store with partner Mariko Nguyen-Dhanani. (Lisa Godfrey/CBC)

It's just one example of living a "good enough" life. That term comes from the parenting theories of 1950s psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. 

He suggested that, instead of flawless parenting, a child actually needs just the basic resources of life and one reasonable, loving, "good enough" parent, in order to thrive. 

French-Israeli philosopher Daniel Milo references Winnicott in reconsidering the ways we understand Darwin's idea of natural selection and the evolution of ever more excellent organisms.

'Avoid the pursuit of excellence'

His recent book, Good Enough, argues that the Darwinian idea of "survival of the fittest" is, in fact, a human projection. What matters most among plant and animal species, Milo says, is just the sheer fact of survival.

Consider the giraffe.

"This is a very badly designed animal," he says. Unable to lie down, the tall giraffe gives birth standing, so that its calf ends up dropping to the hard ground of the African savannah. Yet, its species has survived millions of years.

Giraffes show us that being mediocre is good enough

2 years ago
Duration 1:10
"The more we pursue excellence … the more our lives will be miserable," says philosopher Daniel Milo. He points to the badly designed giraffe as proof that mediocrity is good enough.

Instead of excellence, Milo says that mediocrity can also work in nature.

He adds, mediocrity works for human life, too. Our obsession with extreme achievement in youth sports, for example, ignores the statistical reality that very few athletes will ever go pro in hockey or basketball — never mind become the next Wayne Gretzky or LeBron James.

Aiming high is something we encourage in children, but he advises that it be left behind.

"If the pursuit of happiness is so important … avoid the pursuit of excellence.… It's good for misery." 

Author and academic Avram Alpert shares that view when he looks at our achievement-oriented society, with its economic and political emphasis on the ever bigger and greater.

Nicknamed ‘the Great One,’ Wayne Gretzky is the leading scorer in NHL history, with more goals and assists than any other player. But Milo says that, statistically, being the next superstar is unlikely. (Andy Lyons/Allsport/Getty Images)

"We're creating a lot of damage to our psyches as we're putting too much pressure on ourselves … to our interpersonal relationships as we have less and less time, and we're creating damage in our social cohesion."

Alpert is currently at work on a book called Against Greatness. In a winner-take-all culture, we may aim to join the rich and powerful, but he points out that even the most fortunate life will encounter darkness. 

He also finds inspiration in the idea of "good enough," because it "prepares us to be creative, to be adaptive, to be capable of transforming ourselves, and our relationships, as we need to in response to tragedy."

Failing gracefully

Dealing with inevitable defeats is the focus of a workshop called "How to Fail," presented at the United Kingdom's School of Life. 

It's an international organization aiming to "help people live more fulfilling lives," according to Sarah Stein Lubrano, head of content. 

We're in denial about failure, but it is entirely normal, she says.

"If you apply to a job, you most likely won't get it. If you go on a date, they're most likely not the love of your life. And what our class is about is how to fail well, how to fail gracefully and nobly, and with dignity," she says.

"We actually have people burn their dreams."

Stein Lubrano adds this does not mean dropping all ambition, but that letting go of certain desires can be freeing.

Doing so, she suggests, can clear a path toward living a "good enough," if not better, life.

That's what Zahra Dhanani has done in Toronto's east end. Now working just part-time in law, she and her partner have converted an old convenience store into a warm, inclusive "community hub" called Old's Cool General Store.

For the duo and their neighbours, it's an everyday place, yet far from mediocre.

Old's Cool General Store in the east end of Toronto is more than just a store — the owners' mission was to create a movement for human kindness and connectedness. (Lisa Godfrey/CBC)

Guests in this episode:

Daniel S. Milo is a natural philosopher at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and lives in France and Israel. He's the author of nine books, including Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

Avram Alpert is an author in New York, who teaches writing at Princeton University. His books include Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki and the forthcoming Again Greatness: The Case for the Good-Enough Life.

Sarah Stein Lubrano is a doctoral student at Oxford University and Head of Content at The School of Life, an international educational company and organization headquartered in London. It aims to help people live "more fulfilled lives." 

Zahra Dhanani, along with partner Markiko Nguyen-Dhanani, runs Old's Cool General Store in Toronto.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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