Happily Mediocre – Challenging the Goal of Greatness

By Beth Berry




Among my favorite things about living abroad are the unexpected encounters and rich relationships we’ve formed with people from all walks of life and corners of the planet. One such experience stands out as particularly interesting…

Some months ago, I met a man from England at our favorite hole-in-the-wall wine bar down the street from our house. He, a chatty guy in his late 40s, and I, excited to be out without kids and sharing a table with jovial strangers from six countries, enjoyed a lively conversation on subjects from healthcare reform to child psychology.

Once we had clearly become chums (and the wine had loosened my introversion), he said to me, “You know what your problem is in the US?” Now I was really having fun. “You teach your kids to be the very best at everything they do; that they can be whatever they want to be; that the goal is to achieve greatness.” He had me engaged. “Thing is, most people do not end up at the top. Most are not famous, wealthy nor talented beyond measure. As they grow to discover this truth — having been forever misguided by their parents and culture — they are disappointed with their perceived failure and must come to terms with their ‘lesser’ lot in life.”

Now, I can generally hold my own in a slightly wine-slicked debate (particularly within such a comfortable subject matter), but I found myself more curious than argumentative. Had he just implied that my children would grow up to be mediocre? Was I okay with that?

He went on, “The key is to raise your kids to be happy normal folks. To be happy plumbers, school teachers or postal workers. To be content with their middle-wage income and social status. This way, you teach them how to live within their means and find pleasure in everyday normalcy instead of living in discontentment until they have climbed to the arbitrary top of some hypothetical ladder.”

“So, what about the ones who really are destined to excel?” I inquired, still trying to wrap my head around this rather un-American perspective.

“Well, then they will excel, based on their own will and heart’s desire, not upon social or familial pressures.”

Huh. My wheels were spinning. Had I been setting my kids up for a sense of failure by implying that greatness was the goal? Had I been modeling this behavior in my own strivings? Might this cultural pressure throughout my own childhood be at least partially responsible for years of struggling to feel adequate, no matter how much I’d accomplished?

Over the next few weeks, I continued to think it over. I considered the happy people in my life — those from my childhood, my adulthood and now from other cultures. What did these folks have in common? My conclusion very much affirmed my new friend’s theories:

Happiness, it seemed, flows most naturally to and from those who accept their lives, find goodness in the moment, take responsibility for their thoughts and actions and live the truth of their hearts. Being “great,” on the other hand, as measured by the acquisition of money, high powered careers, fame and prestige (our society’s measures of greatness) seemed far from a sure-fire path to contentment.

I have never been one to imply that my kids should rise to the top. Their personal best is all I ever expect, and they know that. Since our encounter, however, I have subtly shifted the ways I encourage them. I think twice before praising them with messages like, “Wow, you’re so smart. You going to be a doctor someday!” or “Look at our little Mozart over there!” (as they fumble their way through practice), or “You going to remember your mama when you’re rich and famous?”

Instead, I have reconditioned myself to say things like, “You really like drawing, don’t you? I see the way you sit there happy for hours with your notebook.” Or, “Look how you just organized your whole closet! That’s a pretty useful skill.” Or, “So and so is quite a cook, isn’t he? It feels like he just gave us a gift!”

Much like perfectionism, commercialism and the glamorization of violence, I see this as yet another cultural norm worth looking at for its impact on us as individuals and as a whole. Seems the subtle messages we send our children have more influence than we know in shaping their lives and thus, their generation.

Speaking of questioning social norms, I recently described my journey through idealism and how I’ve come to make peace with imperfection. Judging from the comments, I’m not the only one who’s nearly lost their mind trying to be superhuman!

Hope to see you there!



Beth Berry

About Beth Berry


Beth Berry is a writer, mother of four daughters and born idealist living the real life. When she’s not orchestrating the household, she can be found in one of several precarious yoga poses, wandering indigenous Mayan food markets, or holed up in a sunny southern Mexican cafe with her laptop, a shade grown dark roast and a contemplative look on her face. Having lived against the grain as a baby-slinging, toddler-nursing, secondhand-shopping, wanna-be farmer for 17 years, she and her family decided to ditch the rat race for a taste of life abroad. Now, in addition to challenging conventional wisdom, she writes about her life-changing experiences working among women in extreme poverty and oppression. Keep up with her musings and adventures in imperfection at www.revolutionfromhome.com.

4 thoughts on “Happily Mediocre – Challenging the Goal of Greatness”

  1. Nightwish, maybe that’s just the other side of the coin. So many kids these days are programmed to believe that they are intrinsically superior, special snowflakes that when they hit the real world that sense of entitlement sets them up for major disappointment/disenchantment.
    I’ve certainly noticed, as a college instructor, that many students will begin the semester expecting to excel without having to work or participate much at all, then quickly butt up against the rules of their new universe and react in one of three ways: 1. act out, blame the teacher, try to scam the system, etc.; 2. give up and drop the class; or 3. adjust and do their best, which is sometimes excellent and, more often, simply average.

  2. I think the guy took two good ideas and badly combined them. On one hand, Americans are definitely too idealistic and confused by their choices. However, I rarely see most Americans I know truly push themselves to live up to those ideals; but rather cower back and live discontented lives while losing their jobs to people who want it more and are willing to work for less money (in countries where they have NO choice and where happiness comes from supporting ones family, not following a career dream).

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