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Avoiding the Mediocrity Trap

Written by: Bill Sherman on Tuesday, 7 May 2013, 2:31 PM

Do you want to develop a reputation for creating outsize impact? If so, you need to learn how to avoid the Mediocrity Trap.

Four Signs You’ve Fallen into the Mediocrity Trap

  • Casting a Very Wide Net: Your resume/bio lists everything you could possibly do–instead of focusing on what you do exceptionally
  • Accepting the Wrong Projects: You accept projects where you’ll achieve a “7 of 10” or “8 of 10” (or even, shockingly, settle for lower!)
  • Getting in Your Own Way: You have the potential to excel, but you set up obstacles which prevent you from reaching success
  • Tolerating Mediocre Results:  You have a long list of interesting projects which you created mediocre outcomes

What is the Mediocrity Trap?

If you’re smart, you may simply take success for granted. In school, you may have earned great grades without having to work very hard. The Mediocrity Trap occurs when you become intellectually overconfident.

When you see an interesting problem or project, you may be attracted to the challenge, even if it’s not in your expertise.

You may tell yourself “I’m smart. I’m sure that I can figure it out.” During the project, you will certainly feel challenged.

However, you feel that sensation because you’re outside your area of expertise–not because you’re doing great work. However, at the end of the project, you have achieved only limited success–perhaps resulting in a “7 of 10” or an “8 of 10”.

Casting a Very Wide a Net

Over the years, I’ve seen many people cast a very wide net when they search for positions and projects.

Sometimes people feel financial pressure to find their next engagement, so they try to open every possible door. As a result, they struggle to open any door.

Other times, people haven’t looked inwardly to clearly define their own interests and goals.

When I meet someone who is casting a very wide net, I typically ask three questions:

  • Which of these areas appeal most to you?
  • Which of these areas will you be committed to?
  • Where will you excel? (achieving a “9 of 10” or a “10 of 10”)

When a person’s resume/bio shows a bit of breadth, it signals a healthy curiosity, openness to new experiences, and willingness to take calculated risks. These are all very good qualities.

However, when a resume/bio invites too many projects, it suggests that the person has fallen into the Mediocrity Trap.

When you search for your next engagement, only search for projects where you can create exceptional value.

Accepting the Wrong Projects

If you’re a smart person who loves challenges, you’ll probably find it hard to walk away from tough projects and interesting opportunities. But you if you want to develop a reputation for creating impact, you first need the wisdom to focus solely on projects where you can produce a “9 of 10” or a “10 of 10.”

If you can’t achieve excellence, step away from the project before it begins. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself (and the person with the project).

Instead, locate someone in your network who can achieve a “9 of 10” or better.

Getting in Your Own Way

Dr. Mark Goulston, author and psychiatrist, has written an excellent pair of books on the topic: Get Out of Your Own Way and Get Out of Your Own Way at Work. His premise is simple but profound: smart people often devote a lot of time and effort limiting their own ability to create success.

We embrace self-defeating behaviors–such as procrastination, pride, envy, anger, self-pity, or compulsion. Our outputs could have been exceptional, but instead, they become mediocre (if even a success).

If you’re choosing the right projects but still achieve mediocre results, it’s time to ask: “am I getting in my own way?”

Tolerating Mediocre Results

People who have deeply fallen into the Mediocrity will soon begin to lower their standards. They may take on projects far outside their expertise, settling for sub-par “6 of 10” or even “5 of 10” results. This bottom-fishing mindset quickly erodes a person’s reputation and ability to create impact.

If you recognize that you’re working on a project where you can no longer produce exceptional results, it’s time for some honest self-reflection.

  • Can you reshape the project in a way which will allow you to produce excellence?
  • Do you need to change your own attitudes and behaviors? (Get Out of Your Own Way)
  • Do you need to step away from it entirely?

Those are your three options to end an unhealthy relationship with mediocrity. It’s better to do act soon rather than wait.

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