Only the mediocre are always at their best – Jean Giradoux
My gymnastics coach recently revealed to me that Olympic gymnasts are only able to perform their routines at the time they compete. Most of the time, they use spotters, and they periodize their training so that they peak when they compete. Many of them can’t even perform some of their hardest skills on an everyday basis.
While this isn’t especially unique in the world of elite athletes, it does reveal an interesting aspect of excellence: when you are performing at such a high level, you cannot always be at your best.
I do not know to what extent I agree with this idea. I like to believe that excellence is something that can be maintained under any circumstances if there is sufficient preparation, but I do realize that people wear out. My best handstand is usually pretty soon after I warm-up. If I write for hours and hours and hours, the quality of my prose will start off sluggish, pick up, hit a peak, and then deteriorate and go stale. The ability to recover as you go takes a great deal of conditioning, whether you are dealing with sports or intellectual endeavors. We all need time to recharge.
Nevertheless, we can take an important lesson for the Olympic gymnasts. The routines they perform are pushing the limits of what is physically possible for human beings. Mistakes will be made. And it is reasonable to expect that they will only be at their best when all the stars are aligned. They are pushing themselves, so they can’t always be fresh and ready.
The quotation at the top of this post says it well: the only way you can guarantee that you will always be at your best is if you never try for anything beyond mediocre. Always stick to what you know, what you are already good at, and you’ll never make mistakes or be beaten by someone better. But you’ll never grow, and that certainly isn’t the path a Warrior ought to choose.
Put another way: if you are always at the top of your game and aren’t making any mistakes, consider that you might need new and bigger challenges to keep growing.
The reality is that if we are going for the gold, always trying to be the best we can be, and always seeking to push our limits, we will often find ourselves coming up short. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough, as the old saying goes. Especially if you’re always trying to acquire new skills and expose yourself to new things, there will always be a learning curve.
For people who are used to being good at everything, this can be difficult. We often forget how hard it was to acquire many of the skills we now take for granted. It takes most humans about 4 years to reach verbal fluency in their native language, and that’s with the motivation to speak in order to communicate. Walking on your feet takes about 2 years. And people get frustrated when they take years to learn a language as an adult, and when it takes them a while to learn to walk on their hands. Not being able to put up with being less than excellent from the beginning, these people simply give up.
Instead, we should look at our mistakes as a good sign that we are learning.
Of course, we should still enjoy the things we are good at, and spend time doing them in order to consolidate our skills. But when we need to grow, fear of not being at our best shouldn’t hold us back.