Deconstructing a viral article: In Praise of Mediocrity

A few days ago, the NY Times article In Praise of Mediocrity went hugely viral on Hacker News, getting over 400 votes and over 200 comments. In contrast, a typical post that makes it to the ‘front page’ may only get 40-100 votes and only a few dozen comments, so it’s evident this article struck a chord. The article itself is somewhat mediocre, which self-referentially, may have been the point. The author writes:

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.


If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

But he presents no evidence, not even anecdotal evidence, of this. It’s not like he polled people. It’s just a hypothesis. A cruise around the block is typically no more than a quarter mile. You’re not going to get a good workout running such a short distance.

Why was it so popular. Partly, the viralness is explained by the post Wealth, Intellectualism, and Individualism, Part 2 (the obsession with finance) in which I observe that articles about reconciling one’s mediocrity in a hyper-individualistic, results-orientated culture and economy, go viral:

But at the same time, an article about ‘being average‘ also went viral. This ties into post-2008 ‘authenticity culture’, of how it’s better to be authentically ‘true to yourself’, even if it means being average, than being deluded and afflicted by Dunning Kruger. Biological determinism again rears its head, with genes limiting the potential of people who aspire to more than their biology will allow. This is related to ‘share narratives’, as millions of people are seeking answers to existential questions like, ‘Can someone who is only average find meaning in life in an economy and culture that seems to rewards individual success and talent, and how so?’ Not everyone can be a day trading genius, a web 2.0 billionaire, or a top physicist or mathematician, so learning or coping with being ‘average’ is a useful skill.

There’s a huge demand for articles about coping with being average. America’s culture of individualism and a competitive economic climate sets unrealistically high expectations for most people, so learning how to cope with merely being average or ‘good enough’ is an important skill.

Also this passage stood out, in which the author expresses disillusionment with democracy and the American ‘ideal’ of liberty and equality:

Liberty and equality are supposed to make possible the pursuit of happiness. It would be unfortunate if we were to protect the means only to neglect the end. A democracy, when it is working correctly, allows men and women to develop into free people; but it falls to us as individuals to use that opportunity to find purpose, joy and contentment.

Although not a direct attack on democracy, this is an example of a shared narrative of how for both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, democracy is not an unalloyed good, but has a lot of problems and contradictions. Contrary to the false dichotomy created by the left-wing media, it’s not only the far-right that is critical of democracy, but an increasing number of intellectuals and informed people of all political stripes. The ‘American dream’ is related to democracy, as both are touted as empowering the individual, yet both fall short of this goal. Due to biological and social factors, this ‘dream’ is not only unobtainable for most, but is a source of envy and anxiety, and a driver of conspicuous consumption. The American dream is predicted on the belief that people have free will and can shape their destinies, and to some extent we can, but our abilities and outcomes are also constrained heavily by factors outside of our control, such as IQ and parental wealth. Such factors can make the difference between being hugely successful, or only mediocre. The difference between an IQ of 100 versus an IQ 125+, can make the difference between having a high-paying STEM job that brings socioeconomic status, versus being locked in low-paying service sector job that lags inflation and living paycheck to paycheck, whereas the coder has excess income that can be invested to build long-term wealth such as in the stock market and real estate, which is a contributing factor for wealth inequality.

Yet, in disagreement with the above quote, liberty/freedom and equality are inherently incompatible (with the possible exception of equality under the rule of law). To borrow an overused expression attributed to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — ‘Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal, they are not free.’