modern mediocrity

These days a string of conversation I had keeps making its rounds in my head. It winds itself in and out of my awareness, lodging itself in between as it sees fit.

I was speaking to someone I know. He’s enrolled in a prestigious university overseas, pursuing a degree of the future. At that point, he was reflecting on his time there. I don’t remember the specifics, so a lot of liberty has been taken with the exact words exchanged, but the essence is accurate.

Him: … Like you know, it’s not easy. I struggle to keep up with the material sometimes, and projects can be challenging.

My intuition told me he wasn’t being upfront about something, so I probed. Maybe I just wanted to know. There are one too many maybes in this world.

Me: So, how well are you doing among your cohort?

I knew he would’ve delicately sidestepped the entire topic if I didn’t ask – the Asian norm of humility is pervasive. No one asks about a peer’s ranking without expecting to be either humbled or skewered for it. In this case, my question was merely a confirmation.

He looked at me, eyes sharp.

Him: … I’m first.

Then his gaze darted downwards, almost bashfully.

Something about that exchange got to me. It might have been his discomfort. It might have been my own sudden sense of alienation. Either way, that something etched its way into my consciousness, burrowing itself deep in my self-doubt, where it lingers. And the blood from those wounds seep into my thoughts ever so delicately.

Maybe it’s envy.

Have you ever sat in a room and realised you were scraping the bottom of the barrel? I had that experience recently. It shook me to my core: I wasn’t ready to stand face to face with my insignificance and ignorance relative to a group of people like me, much less in the grand scheme of things.

I was told – and I wanted to believe – that just like that senior from my course who graduated with a perfect 5.0, who was extensively painted in the brushstrokes of a model student, an ideal, that I could be the best too. It was almost as if that such a feat could be possible for anyone who made an equivalent effort. It should be attainable, granted I could make the necessary sacrifices.

I’m surrounded by so many competent people I feel like an impostor. Except it’s a little more than that. It’s more of this nagging sense of impending doom in a form of a train charging towards me at full speed where I’m stranded on the tracks, and its name is The Force of Mediocrity.

Maybe it is mediocrity.

What happens when your best is not good enough?

We are all trying, but in this system there can only be a few who make it. What happens, then, to those who are left behind?

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