Embracing mediocrity was a turning point for me, but New Year’s resolutions have always been a favorite flagellation. For the last twenty years and more, every New Year’s eve I’d go off by myself to review my journals from the year. The last ten years, I’d go up on the mountain, usually pitching a tent for the day in PoliPoli Park on Haleakala, and I’d remember happenings, draw conclusions, and make goals for the coming year. I read somewhere back in the 1980’s that “effective and successful” people did that. And I was determined to be both.
It even worked, to a degree. Year by year, I chipped away at goals both big and small: getting the house painted. Putting in a garden. Training the dog. Attempting annual diets (that usually failed.) Finishing multiple college degrees, advancing in my career, raising kids, and nipping at their ankles to herd them toward an effective and successful future.
I never had goals for my marriage except to stay in love and faithful to my husband. He was not someone who ever responded well to attempts to shape and mold him, and that’s part of why I fell in love with him—I wanted and needed a man who saw through my ploys and called bullshit on me, and yet loved me fiercely. And that’s how it’s always been, for 29 years.
You'd think that would be enough, but it wasn't.
All my life I’d suffered from a sense of destiny, of being meant to do something important. This greatness had never manifested. I'd served God as I understood Him the best I could. I worked on my goals, checked them off, and each year we gradually climbed a step higher, one day at a time, as we worked our way through diligent effort (and a few breaks) into the middle class.
We lived the American dream: a pile of debt, two careers, two cars that ran, two terrific kids, one of each gender. Two dogs. Even a picket fence, and we lived on Maui, too. I’d survived my wild childhood growing up in a gypsy-like, alcoholic, hippie lifestyle on Kaua`i, and achieved my dream of normal.
But by forty, when the kids were graduating from high school, I’d begun to suspect that my “destiny” was mediocrity. I’d traded youthful dreams of being a Great Writer for security, and my athletic, outdoorsy body for a comfortably padded middle age, swaddling myself in Land’s End chinos, brightly-printed ‘tops,’ and invisibility.
I went to one more round of therapy, trying to understand my angst. My therapist pronounced early-onset midlife crisis, brought on by fear of the empty nest. “You put a lot into building that family. Now you’re not sure what’s next.”
“And this awful sense of destiny? Like I’m supposed to do something big and important?”
“First child syndrome.” He flapped a hand dismissively. “Let yourself off the hook. You and your husband have both achieved a lot, considering where you started.”
That was true. I sighed with relief and let myself off the hook. I went home and told Mike, “I’m embracing mediocrity.”
“At last,” he said. “I accepted mine a long time ago.” Both the oldest of four, we’ve both struggled with a sense of never doing enough or being enough, even for God. Age finally seemed to be blunting the edges of that unique pain.
Now that the bar of greatness had been removed, I really let myself go, blooming into plump workaholism. I saw the kids off and wept copious tears. I dealt with the empty nest by adding a second job and a dog that needed professional grooming.
But I also begin to write, and on an anonymous blog, under a silly name, I began a story. A story that, over three years and a long bumpy journey, became my first book, Blood Orchids, which has sold over a hundred thousand copies.
And I wrote another, and another…and twenty books and six years later, I looked up from my keyboard and discovered that mediocrity was pretty awesome.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing my annual assessments. At fifty, I just didn’t need them any more—I’ve substituted a meeting with my assistant to strategize the coming year, and a whiteboard with monthly publishing plans.
But this year is the year for health. I've dealt with a lot of skin cancer issues, dental emergencies, joint pains, and still haven’t peeled off my Land’s End and manifested the healthy, fit self I know is the “real me.” What I HAVE learned is this: mediocrity might be the way to go. When I accept that I won’t be the next…who’s a gorgeous fifty-ish redhead? Julianne Moore?
I’ll be happy and successful no matter my size—on the journey, whatever that turns out to be. One step at a time.
Try mediocrity. It might set you free.
Learning to be content with an empty nest, and now no furry family members either, has been a test for me as well. Here’s to mediocrity! and to a fabulous New Year in 2016!
*clinks glasses* Mahalo and Hauoli Makahiki Hou!
Happy New Year Toby! Thank you for all your wonderful books!
Yay! It’s such joy to write them!
I feel like I’ve even sunk below mediocrity at this point. Barely making ends meet, constantly fretting about work and money, just lost my insurance that I could afford, so now I won’t even be able to go to therapy anymore, I’m feeling pretty low at this point. I long since gave up any ideas of being meant for greatness and in the past few years have even forgotten how to dream. It’s too much like false hope, when you know you haven’t got (and may never have) the means or the ability to ever see them come true. Sometimes I just get so weary of having to struggle so hard every day and yet never get anywhere.
That’s the depression talking. One day at a time, choose light. xoxo
Mediocrity – that’s me too at this point – lol. Same career for more than half my life – just about 9 years here in Reno (the biggest little city) doing home care & with the same client. & now about to do something new with my writing – not having it just for me – & I’m excited at this chance. (& am already working on research). This time last year I didn’t think I’d be single & alone again but here I am – I’m 49, alone, single & happy. & that’s ok :). Thank you Toby for a great series of books & for giving me an awesome chance. No New Years resolutions for me – lol. I tend to not keep them when I make them to change something. Happy New Year to you & yours, Toby.
Baby steps get you there. That’s a big part of this post. That, and enjoying your life while its happening, instead of holding out for someone else’s definition of success.
🙂 – baby steps is what I’m definitely doing. & am also definitely enjoying my life as it’s happening. Though have previously lived by others definitions of happiness and/or success. Living for myself is part of why I am happy & comfortable being alone at 49 & single. 😀
Oh, good lord! You are one of the least mediocre people I know!!
But, sure, I understand.
I believe that the secret of your appeal is your ability to, spot on, express what the voice in so many of our heads is trying to say. And to do it with wit, compassion and crystal clarity.
Happy New Year, love.
Ha ha! You know what I mean. And I knew you would. 🙂
Happy New Year, Toby. You never fail to inspire me and make me pause to reflect on how I’m going about things. I appreciate your authentic, candid nature.
Mahalo for being in my Lei “ohana!”
This. This right here.
I also suffer from first-child syndrome, only the harder I push for things, the less they work out the way I’d planned. My first-child syndrome butts heads often with my live only in the moment, hedonistic side (arguably, a large portion of me) which has a harder time with self-discipline and goal-setting/achieving. I think a lot of my failures have actually been products of a “fear of success,” mentality and self-sabotage (unconsciously).
But I’m determined to see an end to that. I may be calling you later this week to chat about how you embraced mediocrity… 🙂
We should talk in the new year. I have a new technique I’m using very easily and successfully to help people, and I don’t have to be your therapist (with all those boundaries) to support you this way. So appreciate your friendship and help with my books over the years. I owe you big!
I can’t comment on whether your novels are mediocre because I haven’t read any, and I declined to download your book Blood Orchids even though it was offered for free (it didn’t sound like my cup of tea from the user reviews). That said, there isn’t anything mediocre about your ability to crank out 20 books in six years and to sell them successfully. I admire and envy your combination of creative muse and business acumen and wish you the best for the coming year and beyond.
Mahalo! I appreciate that.
Mahalo Toby! Mediocrity is the last word I would think of to describe your accomplishments, but I get your message exactly! In some strange way, I feel like a weight just fell off my shoulders, and a twinge of renewal. Going to take this mediocre thing one day at a time, and would love any suggestions you could offer. #firstchildsyndrome. Hau’oli Makahiki Hou to you and your Ohana!
Thanks jillions for this post, Toby. I needed the reminder. Our mother raised me and two siblings to be the very best…all three of us were valedictorians in high school. My brother became a nuclear physicist and eats Maalox and other antiacids like he owns stock in them. My sister has her PhD in another language and just retired from being a tenured professor at UCDavis in California, but with bi-polar problems and taking many drugs. Me? A single mom for five years and then a second marriage that has worked out…while I slaved away as a legal secretary. I never wanted to finish college or become a manager or leader of any kind…just housewifery and crafts and kids and animals suited me just fine. But I always felt a little guilty because my parents and two siblings always wanted to “help the poor sister” become happier somehow. But I finally, after many years, I told them to let go of me and tend to themselves and their own habits and health. Mediocrity suits me to a “T”! Not everyone needs a college degree…a trade school or some such may be just right for them. At least, that’s my take on the situation. Thanks again for your post. Jan
Embracing mediocrity can set you free for greater success and happiness. No joke, it happened to me. <3 And that definition of "success" also changes. Living by your own truth is the greatest joy.
Thanks, Toby. I needed this.
The older I get, the more I struggle with depression that runs rampant on both sides of my family. In my early years, my Polyanna attitude helped tremendously, despite my mother’s ridicule. Her core belief that success and wealth only happen to other people was passed along to me (and my siblings).
Over the last 30 years, several attempts at a writing career started out great (with NY publishing contracts) but quickly flopped, reinforcing my mother’s attitude. As cold as it sounds, I thought I would feel free after she passed away but her negative voice still haunts me–No matter what I do, it will not be good enough.
I know the answer is to let go of the past, let go of chasing after success– in a career, in friendships, in weight loss– and love myself as I am, warts and all. I’ll keep trying.
So here is to a new year and a fresh start, hoping 2016 will finally be the year that I beat depression.
Sue, for me that was a real turning point. I had to give up my high expectations to do the work. Whenever I get stuck I go back to that and it unsticks me. I do professional coaching though, that’s my clinical therapy background combined with my writing success, and I’ve got some “hacks” to accelerate beating depression. Email me if you’re interested! email@example.com
Thanks so much, Toby. I’ll email you. 🙂
This is so good Toby. Thanks for putting your thoughts into words.
And as someone who has known me for so long, that’s great to hear! Mahalo for reading and commenting.
Thanks for your words of wisdom, I am currently adjusting to my first year of retirement after 38 year nursing career. Struggling with the feelings of being non-productive and therefore of little value. I recently updated my resume’, thinking I might seek some part-time employment at a low key clinic….Doubt that will make me more valuable but I will probably mistake the job for increased self-worth…Silly Me!!
BTW I love your books, just moved to the Big Island and enjoy the local information plus the stories are great….Thank You
Just finished Book 11 in the Lei and Steven series. Hope there is a book 12 soon. Been to Hawaii 3 times and want to go again. Live in Texas and right now can go back only through books.
Toby, I, of course, want to write something eloquent in response to this. But I am going to simply say that this is bleeping beautiful Thank you.