In Defense of Mediocrity

Mediocrity, Infinite Games, and Randomness

Hey friends,

Last week, a friend and I had a long chat about ‘doing things for their own sake’ vs ‘doing them for a goal.’ I said I’d create content (YouTube, podcasting, writing) for its own sake, and my friend said that if you don’t have a goal in mind, then you’ll be mediocre.

So, I want to talk about mediocrity, and why it may just be better than perfection. If you know of gradient descent, read this; if not, skip to the next paragraph. So, my machine learning friends, take gradient descent. In that context, I learned that ‘mediocratizing’ is like staying on a hill, while optimizing is like going for the global minimum. The reason, then, that mediocratization is better than optimization is because mediocratization doesn’t assume that there are finite ends in an anisotropic (or random), continuous, unpredictable environment. By staying on the hill, you open yourself up to a host of opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have come across. And when was the last time you did things for their own sake, anyway?

To play the finite game is to play the game to win; to play the infinite game is to continue playing the game itself. I’d always pick the latter, not the former. Mediocrity is playing the infinite game while perfection is playing the finite one. To perfect something means to only asymptotically approach perfection because if we were able to conceive of that which is perfect, we would know exactly when we got there. But we cannot describe — to painstaking detail — what perfection is, and so, we will never know when we get there.

In that case, optimizing for the global minimum will get us stuck in local minima. In other words, going for the best will prevent us from going for ‘good enough’ (something I talked about here.) It’s for the same reason why “done” is better than “best.” Look up ensõ. In Zen philosophy, it’s a roughly drawn “circle.” I say “circle” because it doesn’t really matter if it even looks like a circle or if it’s even a complete circle. What matters is that you draw something, that, to your mind, is a circle.

Thinking about things this way — or even daring to think about things this way — is necessarily opening your mind to exponentially more creative outputs. I realized this when I read that we may barely even “finish” life itself, so there’s simply no point in trying to stress about finishing projects by optimizing for the global minimum.

In essence, you’re better off optimizing for mediocrity so you’re always open to the randomness (or anisotropicity) that the world throws at you. For when you’re optimizing to traverse many hills and go to different places, you will go places.

Do let me know what you think by replying to this email :)


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