When I was younger, one of my biggest fears was living a life of mediocrity.
The thought of looking back over my life, when nearing the end of it, with few singular events to mark my life as exceptional, was something that haunted me. I didn't want to die having been a nobody; now, that idea doesn't bother me.
I wasn't concerned with leaving a legacy, per se, as I've written about before; it was more about how I lived—that I lived in a way that was not boring or average, whatever that means.
I wanted to do something remarkable, to live memorably. I wanted to stand out, but not in the fame-seeking, look-at-me way of Hollywood and celebrity culture. I'm not sure what I wanted when I imagined a non-mediocre life.
I suppose I thought I'd have written several books by now (which, yes, would qualify as leaving a legacy). I had written books, actually, one novel that sits on my hard drive that I never did anything with—and a cookbook, which is not really what I imagined when I thought about being an author.
I have books in me, to be sure, with several half-baked drafts, I just don't know if I have the drive to coax them out from their embryonic state to the light of day.
My anti-ambition can be chalked up to a variety of things.
A function of getting older, maybe, although there are lots of productive people at my age and many decades beyond, so perhaps that's a weak excuse. No, I think it's more about temperament; I don't fit the rise-and-shine, hustle and strive model that's shouted from all corners of society. I don't want to work for visible abs, or to grow my business beyond my ability to manage it myself. I've done that in the past, and it took me years to shrink my business back to a pace that suited me.
Years ago, I bought into hustle culture. I worked hard. So hard that I blew out my wrists and suffered nerve pain in both arms from typing so much. I was at the keyboard all day, every day. I made good money, but I did damage to my body that still lingers.
Today, with lots of introspection, reading, writing, and reflection, I've settled into an ease with my place in the world, and that includes my mediocre life.
Mediocre sounds awful, doesn't it?
It can mean not very good or inferior, or it can mean average, ordinary, and moderate. I like to link mediocre to the idea of the middle way in Buddhist philosophy. There's a state, a middle way, between asceticism and indulgence, striving and laziness, where one finds a balance between outer pursuits and inner calm. That place feels like home.
Embracing the middle way is loosening the grip on the steering wheel, having trust in how life unfolds—it's an acceptance of the present, without aversion to the uncomfortable bits nor craving for the good stuff. I'm not, by a long shot, at that last point—I have plenty of aversion and appetite, but leaning toward that middle path has brought me to greater accord with this life right here. After all, it's the one I have—remarkable or otherwise.
The Slow Life
What if you want a quiet life? What if a slow life of small everyday pleasures and challenges is enough? What if you could shush the voices that tell you to do more, to be more?
I have a slow life. I have mostly silenced those voices. It's been relatively easy for me to get here, especially with a body that doesn't often behave the way I want it to. I don't have the energy to achieve more in a day than my body allows, so I don't fight it.
I spent too many years trying to push my body to be different. Well, it is different, just not in the way I wanted it to be. I do what I can each day; some days it's a lot, other days not so much. But I like my life the way it is—and that in itself is an accomplishment.
Embracing the quiet life takes self-compassion and the ability to push back against a culture that tells you that you don't have much value unless you are successful (as defined outside yourself) and acquiring things. But worth is intrinsic. You don't need to perform to deserve your life. There are no merit badges handed out on our death beds.
So what really matters to you?
What will you honestly look back on and feel good about? Will it be that you woke every day at 5:30 am and followed a regimented to-do list, the last one to leave the office each day as you chased the <insert dream, here>?
Or will you be satisfied to look back over your life and know you were kind, a good friend and partner, you helped others, and you did the best you could each day? Okay, maybe not your best every day because you're human, and the best is just another elusive measure that can't be sustained, but you get it.
Are you courageous enough to live the life that's right in front of you instead of hungering for a life you don't have?
—> A personal note: Saturday is my birthday. For years I hated birthdays, but now I realize what a great honor it is to have them, as the alternative is pretty bleak.
So, to celebrate my birthday (which I’ll do alone, maybe by ordering some curry take-out for delivery), I'd like to ask for your help.
On Saturday, do a small nice thing for someone. Maybe send a few dollars to your local animal shelter, call someone you haven't spoken to in a while, or send a handwritten letter to a friend or family member—something small but out of your usual habit. Then, if you feel like it, report back to me in the comments about what you did and how it went.
Thanks for being a dedicated reader, I appreciate you! If you’d like to support life: examined, you can buy me a coffee. See you again next week!