Mediocratopia

Slouching towards a mediocracy utopia.

Mediocratopia: 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

I’m fascinated by mediocrity as an aspiration, understood as optimization resistance and withheld reserves. Mediocrity is slouching towards survival. Mediocrity is pragmatic resistance to totalizing thought. Mediocrity is fat in the system. Mediocrity is playful, foxy improvisation.

If premature optimization is the root of all evil, mediocrity is  slightly evil.

Mediocrity is the courage to be ordinary.

The increasingly mediocrity-hostile zeitgeist — witness this schwag t-shirt, ht Andy Raskin — has only made me double down.

Mediocrity has been a keynote theme for me for a decade, central to bookend viral hits nearly a decade apart: The Gervais Principle (2009) and The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (2017).

In the former, I argued that Losers are self-aware minimum-effort slackers, while Sociopaths get to the top by avoiding the lure of excellence and practicing strategic incompetence on the way up.  “Excellence” is for the Clueless middle.

In the latter, I argued that much apparent excellence is just signaling in an economy wired to reward mediocrity with a veneer of excellence, and that this is a good thing (many perversely missed that latter point).

Mediocrity makes an appearance in many personal favorites: The Return of the Barbarian, The Gollum Effect, and The Calculus of Grit (2011), Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety (2016), and the posts collected in Crash Early, Crash Often (written 2014-2017) In 2018, I began exploring it explicitly, in Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre,  and Why We Slouch.

Sadly, Hugh MacLeod, whose Company Hierarchy inspired The Gervais Principle, has gone dark-side with an allergic-to-mediocrity 2018 cartoon.

Et tu Hugh? 😢

It’s lonely where I stand, but I will continue to thought-leader humanity as we slouch towards a mediocracy utopia: a mediocratopia. A long-lived world built out of good-enough parts, including, and especially, human ones.

Can we get there? Yes we can, if we stop hustling so damn much.

Mediocratopia: 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

Regular heroes are excellent people. Mediocrity is an anti-heroic ethos, but not along either of the usual dimensions of anti-heroism or villainy. The antihero and villain embody excellence of a sort similar to the hero’s. They merely bring different goals and values to the party.

The anti-excellence hero is the comic hero.

In Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield we encounter Caius Pusilanimus, perhaps the most elemental example of a mediocre comic hero (though he’s a side character in the story).

Where the hero reluctantly accepts his own exceptional nature, the mediocre comic hero eagerly embraces his own unexceptional nature and schemes to gain rewards out of proportion with its potentialities.

Where the hero embodies fight, the comic hero embodies flight. Where the hero puts in 110%, the comic hero gets by with 60%. Where the hero aims to win honorably, the comic hero aims to survive by any means possible, and live to flee another day. Where the hero’s moments of weakness are marked by self-doubt and fear (usually on behalf of others, rather than for themselves), the comic hero’s moments of weakness are marked by a failure to be mediocre. An embarrassingly heroic act, for example. Or idealistic fervor descending as a momentary madness.

My new favorite example of a mediocre comic hero is the wizard Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

For the mediocre comic hero, impact is a function, not of exceptional traits, but of surviving long enough to get lucky in exceptional environments. This comic from webcomicname.com gets at this numbers-game aspect.

All excellence is exceptional, though not all that is exceptional is excellent. Exceptionality can be attained by either being highly present and situated in a complex environment, or by being exceptional in any environment (though sometimes, exceptional character can be canceled out by an exceptional environment).

Mediocratopia: 3

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

Mediocrity is, rather appropriately, under-theorized.  An upcoming book by David S. Milo, Good Enough (ht Keerthik), seems set to make it a little less undertheorized. The subtitle is inspiringly underwhelming: The tolerance of mediocrity in nature and society.  Reader Killian Butler sent me this post on being mediocre. Our movement is really slouching along now.

There is a paradox at the heart of mediocrity studies: excellence is not actually exceptional. If you see an excellent behavior or thing, it’s likely to be a middling instance at its level. The perception of exceptionalism is an illusion caused by inappropriate comparisons: you think it is a 99 percentile example of Level 3 performance, but it’s really a median example of Level 4 performance.

Changing levels of performance is self-disruption. The moment you hit, say, the 60% performance point on the current S-curve of learning, you start looking for ways to level up. This is the basic point in Daniel F. Chambliss’ classic paper, The Mundanity of ExcellencePeople who rise through the levels of a competitive sport do so by making discrete qualitative changes to level up before they hit diminishing returns from the current level. This process of leveling up, has less to do with striving for excellence in the sense of exceptional performance, and more to do with repeatedly growing past limits. The visibly excellent are never at a local optimum.

In Age of Speed, skier Vince Poscente claims he won primarily by practicing his skills at a level above the one he was competing at. So during actual competition, he could win with less than 100% effort.

Making winning a habit is about making sure you’re always operating at a level where you have slack; where you are in fact mediocre. If you’re being pushed towards excellence, it’s time to find a new level.

Mediocratopia: 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

You’ve probably heard of optimization, that nihilistic process of descending into valleys or ascending up hills till you get stuck, having an existential crisis, and then flailing randomly to climb out (or down) again. Mediocritization is the opposite of that: never getting stuck in the first place. Here’s a picture.

Optimization versus mediocritization
Optimization versus mediocritization

The cartoon on the left is optimization. The descent is a relatively orderly process (“gradient descent” takes you in the local steepest incline direction). The getting-out-again part is necessarily disorderly. You must inject randomness. The cartoon on the right is mediocritization: don’t get stuck.

When people talk of “global” optimization, they usually mean that over a long period, you flail less wildly to get out of valleys because the chances that you’ve already found the deepest valley get higher as you explore more. This process goes by names like “annealing schedule”.

Global or local, the thing about optimization is that it likes being stuck at the bottoms of valleys or the tops of hills, so long as it knows it is the deepest valley or highest hill. The thing about mediocritization is that it does not like either condition. Mediocritizers likes to live on slopes rather than tops or bottoms. The reason is subtle: on a slope, there is always a way to tell directions apart. The environment is different in different directions. It is anisotropic. Mediocritization is an environmental anisotropy maintaining process (not a satisficing process as naive optimizers tend to assume).

Anisotropy is information in disguise. Optimizers get stuck at the bottoms of valleys or tops of hills because the world is locally flat. No direction is any different from any other. There are no meaningful decisions to make relative to the external world because it is the same in all directions, or isotropic. This is why you need to inject randomness to break out (mathematically, the gradient goes to zero, so can no longer serve as a directional discriminant).

Generalizing, in mediocritization, you always want to have a way available to continue the game that is better than random. This means you need some anisotropic pattern of information in the environment to act on.

Three examples of mediocritization:

  1. When Tiger Woods was king of the hill (a position he just regained after a long time), his closest competitors performed worse by about a stroke on average. Apparently, when Tiger is in good form, there’s no point trying too hard. See this paper by Jennifer Brown..
  2. My buddy Jason Ho, who just had this entertaining profile written about him, is on the surface, a caricature of an optimizer techbro. But look again: he trained hard and placed second in an amateur body-building competition, and then moved on to newer challenges rather than obsessing over getting to #1.
  3. When I was in grad school, and occasionally hit by mild panic at the thought of somebody scooping me on the research I was working on, I came up with a coping technique I called “+1”. For any problem, I’d always take some time to identify and write down the next problem I would work on if somebody else scooped me on the current one. That way, I’d hit the ground running if I was scooped.

Carsean moral of the 3 stories: optimization is how you play to win finite games, but mediocritization is how you play to continue the game.

Mediocratopia: 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

In a world that runs on ceremonial expectations of optimal performances, but where it is rarely in your best interests to actually deliver optimal performances, practicing mediocrity necessarily involves capability masking: the act of hiding the true extent of your capabilities.

Capability masking is the opposite of “fake it till you make it” behavior, and comes in two varieties, illustrated below, both of which are involved in the behavior commonly referred to as sandbagging.

Capability masking has to be done in a subtle way. You can’t just pick a suboptimal performance level that’s in your own best interests and then nail it precisely without breaking a sweat. Sandbagging is an artistic performance, not a throttle setting, and it’s worth learning to do well.

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Mediocratopia: 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

My philosophy of mediocrity really started coming together last week, in the form of two tweets. First, a graph attributed to artist Marc Dalessio floated by my feed and I tweeted this modified and annotated version:

Second, a passing tweet by me seemed helpful enough to people that I did a double-take myself to see if I’d accidentally said something deeper than I’d thought:

A very compact way to explain mediocrity philosophy is this: non-attachment to finite games (5 words). Unfortunately those who can’t process the Carse reference will almost certainly misunderstand it.

Non-attachment to finite games. There’s a lot packed into those 5 words if you have the context to unpack them. It sounds similar to “don’t get stuck in local optima,” but is actually a statement about openness of domains and unconstrained evolution in notions of utility (I did a short explainer on optimization versus mediocritization 2 episodes ago in this blogchain).

The reference is to finite and infinite games in the sense of James Carse. A finite game is when you play to win. An infinite game is when you play to continue the game. Non-attachment to a finite game means being free to reject both winning and losing. This generally happens when you are able to see and choose ways to keep the infinite game going that are orthogonal to the win/loss logic of a particular finite game. This posture can look like betrayal, cowardice, or choking to those who are attached to a particular finite game, which is why the connotations of mediocrity are invariably negative for finite gamers.

The idea of non-attachment here is critical, and is where subjectivity reshapes the meaning of “objective” cost or utility without an alternative notion of value necessarily ready at hand. Mediocrity is a leap of faith that there’s more to life than whatever is going on right now. Whatever the hill, odds are, it’s not the one you want to die on.

Taken together, the two provide a usable map and compass for a praxis of mediocrity. A map of the territory (emotional roller coaster of open-ended growth), with a depiction of a subjective path through it (modes of humor that work as coping mechanisms for each regime), and a compass to guide you through it (non-attachment to particular peaks or troughs, which are the wins and losses you must look past to continue the game).

Mediocratopia: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

I’ve had a rather stressful week due to a family emergency, and one of the things that’s been most helpful is the one day at a time and it’s a marathon, not a sprint genre of aphorisms. At first sight, the thought seems tautological and empty. After all you can’t literally live more than one day at a time. Or can you? Yes you can. The trick is to think in terms of gaits rather than time periods.

Credit: Stephen Cunane

Stephen Cunnane made this great video explaining various gaits in animals, and the gif above is a clip from that.

I want to talk about the gait appropriate for a life posture of mediocrity. This gait, I argue, is the amble.

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