The Secret to Being Great Is Being Mediocre Every Day

Don’t aim for greatness, aim for consistent mediocrity.

My mother and I were desperately trying to find a teacher that would help me get better at math. One of her friends gave her the contact of this teacher who was supposedly excellent at getting students to score well.

My problem with math was not ordinary enough for most teachers to solve. I used to solve a lot of questions every day. The work ethic was top-notch. I was focused and determined. The problem was fear — fear of sitting in the exam and not being able to solve the question in front of me.

After a trial class with my new teacher, I was disappointed. I told my parents that I don’t want him to teach me. But my father disagreed. He didn’t think I was understanding enough to judge the caliber of my teacher. And he was right. What did I know? I was a small kid with big-time math phobia.

Long story short, due to the efforts of my teacher, I achieved perfect scores in most of my math tests for all my high school years. I also ended up in the top college in the country.

Looking back, he didn’t teach me anything specific about math that others didn’t. What I learned from him instead was the meta-skill of solving problems in life.

During the class, whenever I said, “I’m trying to solve this problem but the answer just won’t show up,” he’d say in the most Yoda-like expression:

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

The funny thing is, he too didn’t know the answer! He had a full-time job as an engineer. He did not know the answers to all the textbook questions like most professors. Still, he solved all questions like clockwork. Seeing him work through the problem was amazing.

He told me his secret, which he religiously applied:

“Whenever you’re stuck on a question, don’t keep staring at it. Pick up the pen and do something.”

If the equation said, x = 5 , I’d just write* *x = 10/2. If it said x = tan(y) I’d just write x = sin(y)/cos(y).

I always did something. Even if it was stupid. But it worked. The answer always shows up if you keep working on it. It gave me the confidence I so desperately needed to face all my tests. I was no longer afraid of new questions.

The Power of Setting Mediocre Goals

IBM’s salesforce was one of the most dominant ones in the country. But ironically, their sales teams had the lowest quotas. Why?

Turns out, it’s a great psychological trick. Since the quotas were so low, the sales guys weren’t afraid to pick up the phone and start dialing. Thus, they continuously broke past their quotas by reducing the resistance to getting started.

Tim Ferris has written humongous books over the past few years. His secret is a piece of advice he got from a ghostwriter (50+ books, including NYT bestsellers) — “Write two crappy pages per day”. That’s all he had to write to “win” for the day, and of course, he often wrote more. Setting an unambitious goal doesn’t let you procrastinate.

When we set out to achieve something, we build a grand vision in our minds. Recently, when I decided to make reading a daily habit, I set a goal of 30 minutes every day. I failed to keep up the habit for more than 2 days.

In my already busy schedule, the possibility of finding 30 minutes was bleak. That’s when I decided to lower the bar to five minutes. In five minutes you can almost get through five pages. At this point, if the book is interesting, you may read another five pages.

After 10 minutes, you’re engrossed in the book. Before you know it, you’ve hit your ambitious goal. There are two reasons why this works:

  • **Mediocre goals take away fear: **Whether it’s the fear of not being able to solve the problem or reading books, it paralyzes us. Setting mediocre goals takes the fear away.

  • Going beyond your mediocre goals feels great: When you read for 20 minutes instead of five, you feel great. But if you read for 20 minutes instead of 30, you feel bad.

The underlying goal is simple —** get yourself to do something**. Score the small wins and before you know, you’ll be off to the big leagues.

This may sound useless to you. It often did to me. I solved my math equations in the most stupid ways. My friends thought I was just doodling on the answer sheet. Nevertheless, I’d tell them, it’s “better than nothing.”

As it turns out “better than nothing” works fantastically when applied to the problem of procrastination.

Consistency First, Greatness Second

The takeaway is simple — set goals that don’t scare the sh*t out of you. Even if they seem low, don’t worry. Everything is fine if you’re **doing it every day. **Taking small steps every day is better than once-in-a-while grandiose action.

Define a small action for what you want to do:

If you want to start writing, write 100 words every day. If you want to learn a new instrument, practice for 5 minutes every day. If you want to meditate, take 30 seconds to observe your breath now. If you want a new network, reach out to one person. If you want to set up a website, just design the header. If you want to start a business, call one prospective customer. If you want to lose weight, go for a ten-minute walk now.

Think about it this way — you need to get your car out of the garage to go anywhere. Don’t think about taking a long drive yet; all you have to do is get out.

Yes, you’ll have to change the course. You’ll have to slow down, speed up, or take a pause. But once you’re out of the garage, the possibilities are endless.

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Written on April 9, 2021