On the Pursuit of Mediocrity

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

As the saying goes, "the best is the enemy of the good." As we strive for perfection, we often fail to realize the implications of such an undertaking. Attempting to reach perfection is often unrealistic and even worse, it can get in the way of achieving a good outcome. In certain situations, we try so hard to achieve the ideal solution that we have burned the bridges that would have allowed us to reach a lesser yet still superb solution.

Philosophers throughout history have inspected this plight from many different viewpoints. Greek mythology speaks of the golden mean, which uses the story of Icarus to illustrate that sometimes "the middle course" is the best solution. In this story, Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his beloved son whom he loved so much to "fly the middle course", between the sea spray and the sun's heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings. For not heeding the middle course, he fell into the sea and drowned.

More recently, management scholars have explored the Pareto principle and found that as we increase the frequency of something, or strive to perform actions to achieve some form of perfection, we run into diminishing returns.

Even further, Harold Demsetz is noted as coining the term the Nirvana fallacy in 1969, which shows the fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. This is another trap that we may fall into, where we are constantly thinking of the ultimate solutions to problems, when something more realistic needs to be considered.

Over and over throughout history, we've found that perfection is often unrealistic and unachievable. However, we push ourselves and our peers to "give 100%" or "go the extra mile", while it may be that the better course is to give a valuable level of effort while considering the effects of further effort on the outcome. Working harder does not always help us achieve loftier goals.

This has presented itself to me most recently during my time studying at my university. I was anxious and feeling the stresses of my courses, career, and personal life for quite a while, which was greatly affecting how well I was doing at school and my level of effort at work. One day, I happened to be talking to my father when he said something simple that hit home:

All you can do is show up and do your best. Worrying about the outcomes won't affect the outcome itself.

The thought was extremely straightfoward and uncomplicated, yet it was something that I had lost sight of during my stress-filled years at school. Ever since then, I've found myself pausing and remembering that quote every time I get anxious or stressed. It helps to stop and think "Can I do anything to affect the outcome or am I simply worrying over something I can't change?"

When Mediocrity Isn't Enough

One problem with the philosophies presented in this post is that they are implemented far too often in situations where mediocrity simply isn't adequate. For example, let's take a look at digital user data, specifically personally-identifiable information (PII). As a cybersecurity auditor in the United States, I have found that most companies are concerned more with compliance than any actual safeguards over the privacy or protection of user data. Other than companies who have built their reputation on privacy and security, most companies will use satisficing as their primary decision-making strategy around user data.

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.

- Andrew Colman, A Dictionary of Psychology

This means that each decision will be met with certain possible solutions until one of the solutions meets their minimum acceptable standards. For companies that deal with user data, the minimum acceptable standards come from three areas:

  1. Laws and regulations
  2. Competitive pressure
  3. Risk of monetary or reputational loss

Working with project management or auditing, the primary concern here is the risk of legal ramifications. Since the primary risk comes from laws and regulations, companies will require that any project that involves user data must follow all the rules of those laws so that the company can protect itself from fines or other penalties. Following this, companies will consider best practices in order to place itself in a competitive position (e.g. Google vs. Apple) and review any recent or ongoing litigation against companies regarding user data. In a perfect company, management would then consider the ethical responsibilities of their organization and discuss their responsibilities over things like personally-identifiable information. However, as we mentioned above, most companies follow the idea of satisficing, which states that they have met the minimum acceptable standards and can now move on to other decisions. Modern business culture in the United States dictates that profits are the golden measure of how well a company or manager is performing, so we often don't think about our responsibilities beyond these basic standard.

Not all situations demand excellence, but I believe that applying any philosophy as a broad stroke across one's life can be a mistake. We must be able to think critically about what we are doing as we do it and ask ourselves a few questions. Have I done everything I can in this situation? Is mediocrity an acceptable outcome or should we strive for perfection, even if we can't attain it?

Taking a few moments to think critically throughout our day, as we make decisions, can have a tremendous effect on the outcomes we create.