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On being mediocre

  1. I watched a movie titled “A Brilliant Young Mind” (starring my favorite actor Asa Butterfield) two weeks ago, and there was a line in the movie that made me think a little:

“Here, you are neither weird nor the best mathematician. You are painstakingly average.”

– said a (fictional) girl on the UK IMO (International Mathematics Olympiad) team to a young student who has been treated as a prodigy his entire life, and for the first time gets exposed to equally talented people.

Screenshot 2015-10-16 01.34.15

It made me think because in the same week that I watched the movie, two separate young students expressed concerns to me that they are not good enough in anything.

2. Truth is, I feel very mediocre even now, being surrounded by many talented friends at Harvard. There are many times when I felt that I couldn’t think as fast, speak as eloquently, or be as creative as people around me; not to mention countless other occasions when I feel inadequate and undeserved to be where I am.

But then, this is not the first time that I feel mediocre. On my first day of high school (I went to a school called High School for the Gifted in HCMC), everyone was speaking a language that I couldn’t understand. At the beginning, I struggled to be the average student, and when I received my first academic report, I called my dad and yelled happily through the phone: “Dad, I’m right at the median!”

Then, during my freshman year in college at Princeton, it was very clear to me that I did not belong to the school. Whoever I sit next to could be an IOI medalist, a London Olympics medalist, winner of a Tony award, so on and so forth. I wonder for a long time why Princeton had accepted me at all.

3. It took me a long time to learn the lesson that being mediocre is, in fact, normal. We often feel insecure about being just mediocre, without knowing why being mediocre is bad. After all, being mediocre only means you are another average human being. Being mediocre isn’t bad.

It is easy to forget such a simple thing when we were raised in an environment in which we are always encouraged to aim for the top. From childhood, our parents and societal judgment on our parents force us to always try to get into the best elementary school, then get into the best middle school, the best high school, the best college, the best grad school, the best job, the highest paid job, etc. Indeed, we learn to feel satisfied about ourselves only when we do better than the average.

This, is a dangerous thought. This summer, I spent two months living with a working family in Japan. My host family mom still works as a care-taker for the elderly (even though she is already 61 year old herself). Her son, my host brother, works for a water company, in charge of installing pipelines for new building; and his wife works for a nail salon. Whenever he came over to have dinner with the family, he came in the dirty work clothes that he wore during the day. Everyone was tight on finance.

There wasn’t a single sign that they were less happy than any rich family I have encountered.

4. I’m not writing this to convince to you that people can be happy without money or being successful; that is not the point. Of course, from an economist’s point of view, more money enable people to have a larger choice set, which strictly improves their utility – or “enjoyment of life”.

The point is, in my host family, everyone tried their best. Once they have done that, being just mediocre in the outcome doesn’t matter anymore.

5. Back to my graduate school story. After 4 years of Princeton and a summer in Japan thinking very hard about life, I have learned to accept personal mediocrity. It doesn’t matter that I’m just the “painstakingly average” in the pool; it only means that I’m blessed to be surrounded by smart, hard-working people.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try hard, however. There is a difference between accepting the gap between you and the others and accepting the gap between you and your full-potential self.

6. In summary, do not be troubled if you feel mediocre compared to the others. But, do worry if you feel mediocre when you need not necessarily be.

An equivalent statement is, I strongly believe that I should not work to equate myself with others. I should only work to equate myself with what I am capable of.

Harvard, Oct 16, 2015.
Vu T. Chau

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