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6th December 2017

The fear of mediocrity and failure

Why we avoid meaningful pursuits, and what needs to change

The International Baccalaureate’s Further Mathematics course is notoriously difficult. High school students undertake learning units in discrete mathematics, Euclidean geometry, graph theory, set theory, linear algebra, statistics, and advanced calculus — all of which wouldn’t be out-of-place in the first few years of a STEM university degree.

To this day, I remember what our teacher said during our first class while looking through the register… “I won’t bother to remember all of your names until the third week. Half of you would have dropped out by then.”

Imposter syndrome, performance anxiety, and high-functioning depression — there are many toxic side-effects of what is an increasingly prevalent issue. It affects previously high-performing students who have encountered a wall for the first time, and in response, develop a compulsive fear of mediocrity and failure.

It is for the people who have, for their entire lives, defined themselves to be exceptional, and now are exposed to not only their own distorted self-perceptions but the real and imagined prejudices of others. In the face of these challenges, many of us choose to quit pursuits that may otherwise have contributed meaningfully to our lives.

Since the day that we are born, our lives — and by extension, our successes and failures — are made to be spectacles. We perform not only for ourselves but for other people. We may openly share our grades with our classmates after a test, we may have our parents check our semester report cards, we may post graduation pictures on Facebook.

But the concept of spectacle goes beyond a general lack of privacy; it is the constant awareness of being watched. It is about how we adjust our behaviour believing that we are always under the judgmental gaze of others and how this vulnerability never leaves us even when no one is watching. Over time, we internalise this feeling of unceasing exposure and we begin to see ourselves in the perspective of a dissociated spectator.

This means that we judge ourselves in the same way a stranger may judge us, we value ourselves in the same superficial and un-intimate ways a stranger might. And worst of all, this effect is arguably much worse for gender and racial minorities.

The performance of racial minorities and women is always necessarily made a spectacle at a young age. We are told throughout our lives that people judge us for what we cannot control and that the peak of our liberation comes when we prove them wrong. Our private lives are made into socio-political issues.

Herein lies the paradox — our idealised perceptions of our own capacities to break out of external limitations is itself a crippling handicap. When we learn to look at our successes as triumphs against systematic disadvantage, the inverse is also true. Our failures no longer belong to solely us; they reflect upon our gender and race.

When women struggle in STEM, they do not have the privilege of just being imperfect people, but rather, their shortcomings are used as proof of female incompetence. Women are more likely to be punished more harshly for their mistakes which overshadow any potential improvement they may have.

Female surgeons are statistically much less likely to get referrals from other doctors after a failed procedure than their male counterparts under almost identical scenarios. The fear of failure for many people is therefore not only an issue of narcissism and internalised self-consciousness but also of very real external judgement.

When preceded by a long history of high-performance, mediocrity often causes a significant amount of self-delusion. In a bid to protect our self-esteem and identity, we drop the pursuits that make us feel bad about ourselves or we abandon all ownership of our failures, i.e. we blame others for our own flaws.

But feeling bad about ourselves is part of the journey. In a culture that fetishes the feeling of perpetual happiness and absence of pain, we aren’t taught that pain can be a natural and healthy part of personal development. Anything that is worth doing will be painfully difficult and pushing ourselves to rise to challenges will, at times, lead to crushing disappointment. We often trivialise or romanticise this hardship, ignoring the fact that it is often gruelling, unsatisfying, and sometimes meaningless.

But in the end, this pain naturally accompanies ambition. Trying to avoid pain by quitting or treating our ambition with frivolity and detachment stunts our ability to commit in any profound way to improvement. We should stop attempting to insulate others and ourselves from pain.

Though we should recognize when it reaches damaging levels, we should affirm that gruelling hardship is often a healthy sign of ambition and commitment. Instead of teaching people how to avoid pain entirely, teaching them how to cope with stress and disappointment is probably more helpful while ensuring that we support them throughout their journey. This by no means justifies toxic practices like overworking and unhealthy obsession — of course, there needs to be a balance.

In order to overcome this oppressive dread of our own growth, we should work harder to normalise failure. Those who succeed should make it clearer that the path to the top is paved with determination, hard work, and many, many missteps.


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