I read an article in The New York Times the other day in which a CEO of an insurance company was interviewed about her career development, management style, and hiring techniques. She said that, from childhood, her parents had instilled in her and her siblings that “mediocrity is not a good place to be.” That guidance had clearly impacted her, as she demonstrated leadership skills early on and has had a very successful career (she was being interviewed by The New York Times, after all!).
I found myself nodding along with the interview. That’s right, I thought. Mediocrity is a not a good place to be.
Only, sometimes, it is.
I have come to this idea only recently, and it’s been difficult to embrace. As a self-described Type A, being mediocre isn’t in my DNA. Doing an adequate—as opposed to excellent—job in any and all aspects of my life—in my career, at home, in the larger world—doesn’t sit right with me.
But the past three months, I found myself repeating an unusual mantra over and over:
Adequacy is okay.
Adequacy is okay.
Adequacy is okay.
This three-word phrase—something I never would have thought I’d say (or think)—became my saving grace during the days and weeks when I was convinced I was failing, messing up everything because there was too much to do and not enough me.
This mantra founds its origins in my career: my manager, the head of the nonprofit organization where I’ve work for more than a decade, went on parental leave and I was asked to take on her duties, as well as my own. I didn’t hesitate to say yes; I was happy to help out by giving her the support she needed to go on leave and to be there for my colleagues who needed someone to temporarily step up in the top role.
For the first few weeks, I did the best I could, and things worked out. I largely held everything together.
After those first few weeks, though, I realized I wasn’t holding things together that well after all. Our household paperwork and to dos piled up, the house was messy, the clothes were washed but left the laundry basket, I was more stressed out and impatient, I pushed back deadlines at work because I couldn’t meet them, I rescheduled meetings, I missed events for the kids, I never scheduled the playdates they desperately wanted, mail went unanswered, and I didn’t respond to emails from friends. I was tired. I didn’t have the bandwidth to talk with my husband about anything other than our kids. I was disappointed in myself. I felt guilty about everything.
Then, I realized something profound: my priority—at least during this time—wasn’t to be amazing or excellent. Rather, it was to do what was most important, which, in my case, was to make sure my family was cared for, to hold down the fort at work, and to keep myself healthy.
I didn’t have to excel in every area of my life. Adequacy was okay. I could float in mediocrity for a little while, until the seas calmed down.
I could be adequate, mediocre even, for the things that were not “mission critical” (who says finding clean socks in the laundry basket instead of bedroom dresser is bad?), and good at the things that mattered to me, the things that sustained me, the things that gave my life meaning. (I should keep this in mind all the time, shouldn’t I?)
Once I made a case for adequacy and once I accepted it, I felt better. I may have achieved less during the time my manager was on leave, but the achievements I did reach were grounded in my best effort, and that was important. Accepting adequacy was, at least for me, about doing the best I could at the time, and letting myself be okay with that.
My manager came back to work this week. I was thrilled to see her, happy to no longer need my mantra, though grateful for the lessons that came along with it.