I am the product of excellent schooling during an era when white South Africans were uniquely privileged, so it’s hardly surprising that I know some very ambitious and successful people. What’s surprising is that a few of us are not particularly ambitious, nor are we successful in the conventional sense of the word. What’s more, in the fifteen years that I’ve lived my life as an itinerant English teacher, I’ve met a lot of other unambitious folks, and they are a breath of fresh air.
It’s only human for us evaluate our lives through a critical lens from time to time, and I suspect that many of us feel like we are falling short of some kind of ideal. That’s because now more than ever the media and popular culture are peddling the dogma that we must wring the very last drop of effort out of our lives to ensure that we are the best that we can possibly be. Mere happiness is no longer sufficient; only excellence will suffice.
If that obese 65-year-old woman with one leg can do it, then you had better get off your arse and run a marathon too. If all it takes is hard work, why haven’t you learnt to brew your own beer from raw ingredients, or write your own computer program? Basically the implication is; why are you content with your mediocre life? It may not be that explicit, but the ‘Just do it, Impossible is nothing’ mantra is telling you that the only reason you don’t have a Ferrari in the garage, and six-pack abs is lack of effort. So, by extension, you should feel guilty about it.
By the bizarre standards of our hyper-ambitious age, you should feel guilty about not working overtime, not losing sleep, not sweating blood to achieve ‘exceptional’ goals. You should feel guilty about being merely content. Well, I’m here to tell you that that’s bullshit. What exactly is this ephemeral ‘excellence’ that we’re supposed to be aiming for? How is it better than contentment? Surely the ultimate goal of all our effort is just happiness.
Survival is good enough
The great lie of advertising is that you need more stuff to be happy, and thanks to an onslaught of likeminded media, even some as benign as TED talks, we’re all infected by the idea that if we can just reach that goal of (fill in the blank), then we’ll be happy. But of course, this is nonsense. Why peg your happiness on some future state when you can be happy in the present? All you have to do is appreciate what you have.
Appreciation v Progress
I’m not saying that goals are pointless, but I do suspect that our grandparents’ generation was happier in many ways because they knew how to be content. They knew when they had enough stuff, and they appreciated the simple pleasure of spending time with family and friends, or just being alone, doing nothing in particular. To those of you who are happy with your lot in life, and are content to keep it that way, I think you have achieved the goal that many ambitious souls are longing for. To the contented mediocre, I salute you!