Battling mediocrity

A friend on Facebook lamented an item about a passably average singer’s newly released CD garnering a gold record award recently while other singers who are immensely more talented can’t seem to get the same break. His sad point was that mediocrity rules in the Philippines.

Why am I not surprised?

While we know that talent is gifted to an elite few, there is also a mediocrity mindset that bestows royalty on some who are obviously lacking in it.

Sure, all of us are mediocre in a few things that we do and it is understandable. But it is something else when many people adapt mediocrity as the gold standard.

I can think of many instances when I have come face to face with the mindset that perpetuates this. It’s the attitude that settles for pwede na in place of doing work that is outstanding. And it’s amazing how the followers of mediocrity can get enthusiastic about its manifestations.

Mediocrity is brought about by many factors, one of which is good old laziness, where one is content with just almost barely fulfilling the minimum requirements. Why? Because it is the easy, convenient, non-challenging thing to do. It is a self-defeating attitude, alien or oblivious to the pride one feels when one does a job well.

Another factor is that often, people just don’t recognize what is special about real talent. They don’t know any better. And here is where the problem becomes more serious.

Mediocrity is everywhere. Has it ever happened to you that you are watching someone being hyped by media as being just great, and you catch yourself wondering what all the fuss is about?

Watch TV, especially the sitcoms, where the actors “brave” their roles knowing that what they do is far from excellent and is at best, mediocre. Not even canned laughter can save them from being dismal flops.

Read the newspapers, magazines and there is so much shoddy work that amounts to blah reporting and writing. Listen to the radio and the music it dishes out. I know I sound like a ranting old man but I feel that years of mediocrity and underachievement or not trying hard enough to be good, has begun to do us in, in a big way.

I once had a conversation with a movie producer who has been coming out with noteworthy films that have a high level of excellence and artistry and yet manage to be commercial. He pointed out an important factor why Philippine movies have not hit the international scene in a big way compared to movies from other countries. He says it is in the stories we tell and the way we tell them. He complained that too many scripts are derivative of Hollywood movies or are too populated with stock characters instead of real people who the audience can identify with. We hardly ever get out of tried and tested formulas in the stories we tell.

I asked him if it was a question of budget, as many filmmakers seem to suggest. Or was it a question of the censors standing in the way of creativity? He shook his head vehemently and pointed out that Iran manages to come out with quality films praised by critics everywhere despite the strict censorship filmmakers there must go through. And if budget is the main constraint, how come a country like Nepal, which makes less than five movies a year, can come up with international winners?

Again, around here, it’s mediocrity rearing its ho-hum countenance.

We seem to be plagued by what I call a “militant mediocrity.” It is evident not just in the lack of boldness in the way we choose, act and do what we do. It is evident in the way we accept the status quo without resistance. As a people, we suffer from a smallness of dreams and thus we settle for what is, at best, lackluster. Our cities are dirty, our infrastructure are built poorly and with little imagination or aesthetic sense. Our schools continue to dish out education that is far from world-class.

Perhaps it has something to do with our penchant for moderation, which seems to indicate our aversion or fear of anything that may verge on the extreme. Like Goldilocks, we neither like it too hot nor too cold and so we look for the middle ground. Except that the middle ground is determined not by how high we can reach but by how low “low” is at the moment. And the sad thing is, things seem to be at the lowest they have ever been.

“That, however, is mediocrity, though it be called moderation,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Dan Millman in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, put it less moderately. “Moderation? It’s mediocrity, fear and confusion in disguise. It’s the devil’s dilemma. It’s neither doing nor not doing. It’s the wobbling compromise that makes no one happy. Moderation is for the bland, the apologetic, for the fence-sitters of the world afraid to take a stand. It’s for those afraid to laugh or cry, for those afraid to live or die. Moderation…is lukewarm tea, the devil’s own brew.”

Thus, if the surveys are to be believed, we continue to throw our support behind political figures who are hardly competent and without any vision that challenges us to be better than what we are. And it usually means we just end up choosing the one who can do the least damage.

We admire artists who have no commendable body of work that has defined a higher state of the art or has brought their audience to places they have never been. Our media promote the shallow instead of the profound, the fake instead of the real, the glitzy instead of the substantive.

This “militant mediocrity” is easily threatened by superior ideas and often rejects them outright. Because it is highly invested in being average, it mocks anything that wants to raise the bar. Don’t we often dismiss as pilosopo, a snob, or an elitist, anyone who questions or challenges us with new concepts and ideas and new ways of thinking?

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them,” wrote Joseph Heller.

Our media, our leaders and societal authority figures must begin to challenge us to aim for something higher. If they keep up this diet of mediocrity, we will become hopelessly mediocre ourselves.

It was Walter Russel who said, “Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed.” Forrest Gump put it in his own inimitable way, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we may blame others for where we are, it is incumbent upon us to get ourselves out of the rut we are in and adopt more winning attitudes.

It’s time to shake up this side of the world and rid ourselves of things that do not do us any good. And one way to do this is to believe that we deserve better. But we have to be militant about it. When we do so, we will realize that when we do better, we are happier with what we get.

* * *

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John Santiago
John Santiago
11 years ago

“Do or do not,..there is no try!” – Yoda

Who says we cannot learn from George Lucas?

11 years ago

There is an old saying that I like a lot. I don’t know who originated the saying but it holds true in this case.

“If you want something you’ve never had you must do something you’ve never done.”

I too would love to see more artists from the Philippines on the international circuit. Certainly the talent exists.

I have long appreciated OPM and many of the film actors an actress’s and I am not even from the Philippines though I did live there for a three years in the 70’s.

I continue to visit the Philippines whenever my schedule allows and will continue to do so as long as the Lord will allow me to.

God bless all,


11 years ago

I agree with your points. Totally. Who to blame? The media. For continually feeding us this notion that it’s okay to be so-so.

That’s my personal view.

11 years ago

Another good read Jim. I enjoyed it. 🙂


Craig Peihopa
11 years ago

A truly inspiring post for my stage in life Jim. I struggle with a mediocrity all the time, not from within me from those without. I personally strive for excellence in EVERYTHING I do. I know that my light is dim and will not be here forever. I work at my craft all the time, to push my envelope, to push myself to widen my circle of activity and understanding. I want to one day stand before my maker and give an account that I had given my all, my best, with the talents I felt I was bestowed with. I refuse to live with regret, I hold myself to a much higher standard than many who think they know me, actually know.

11 years ago

“Militant Mediocrity” catchy…
I think I’m afflicted with this myself… and yes I call it moderation. I try to keep it in check every time I catch myself, funny thing is I grew up thinking it was virtue. I still think it is but perhaps practice judgement and bounds of reason(???).

This is the first thing I read today and it felt like a cold shower.

More power Jim.


[…] consider the most recent epiphany of the venerable Jim Paredes where the term “militant mediocrity” arises: This […]

11 years ago

Very insightful post, although I would disagree with the notion that we have a “penchant for moderation”. Just look at the recent Holy Week goings on — real crucifixions using real nails?!? Maybe we have a penchant for the extreme.

Could it be that we settle for mediocrity because, in our hearts and as a people, we really don’t believe we deserve any better?

11 years ago

you’ve hit the nail right on the head! and you know what, i came to this realization after i left the philippines and taught fresh off the boat chinese students at a public school in new york. i have never seen such focus and determination before and could not help but compare them to my former students in manila.

i’ve also taught a number of fil-am students and it’s quite unfortunate that these students prefer to emulate hip-hop figures much like the latinos and blacks. ive tried hard to motivate them but i guess i’m no match to pop culture influences. also, most of them do not aim high unlike other asian migrants like the chinese, indians, koreans, etc . such is the case with a lot of second generation filipino immigrants i’ve met who are nurses, and not to disparage the nursing profession, but given the opportunities that abound in this country , it seems like they’re selling themselves short in pursuing the same career that their parents used to gain entry in the states. on the other hand, the vietnamese at the corner laundromat who barely speaks english has a daughter pursuing medicine at nyu on scholarship.

the philippines needs a confucious!