If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
“Rank must be preserved.“- the Ancient Roman Philosopher Cicero
I was a college minister for a few years, in a city that was had several different Universities, and a couple of different community colleges. Whenever I met people would were coming to a college ministry event, I could tell within a second or two what school they were at, and how they felt about it. If they were going to a 4 year school, they’d immediately answer your question with a confident, “ACU” or “UTA” or some other acronym.
But if they were going to a community college they would almost always answer with something like, “Now see, what’s happening right now is that I’m waiting on some paperwork to come through, and I’m trying to just get my basics out of the way…but I’m going to get my degree at…” and then they would tell you where they were going to go, not where they currently were going.
I learned that there was a status that was associated with college, and that each student was keenly aware of their status.
I heard a preacher say one time, we live in the Land of Er. We constantly are comparing ourselves to other people, wanting to be smart-er, thin-er, fast-er, strong-er. We want to know how we are doing at life, so we look around to compare ourselves to other people.
But this leads to problems.
One Harvard Business School professor interviewed what he called 500 “high-need for achievement professionals.”These were people who were at the top of the world, but the overwhelming majority “questioned their own success and brought up the name of at least one other peer who they had felt had been more successful than they were..they’re making themselves miserable by constantly comparing themselves to others.”
I read the other day, that 9 out of 10 office workers suffer from “professional envy” of colleagues they thank have more glamorous, better-paying jobs. More than two-thirds of us feel professional jealousy toward friends, and almost a third of us envy a partner or spouse’s job.
The Prince of Mediocrity
The play Amadeus, makes this point better than any other story I know. The court musician Antonio Salieri, loves to make music, and was great at it, but great wasn’t good enough for him.
He wanted to play on the level of Mozart, and eventually he is destroyed by jealousy. He was tortured by the fact that someone was better than him. Salieri blamed God, praying about how God”owed” him and when he finally realized that he would never be able to play like Mozart, Salieri gave himself the title “the Prince of Mediocrity.”
My generation has talked more about changing the world than ever before. We basically coined the phrase, we talk about it all the time, but behind all this language is more than just changing the world, and making a dent in the universe. Much of the time, it’s because we are terrified by the potential of just being mediocre.
To be clear, this isn’t just selfishness or entitlement, these people aren’t lazy, they are talented and passionate and caring. But they are doing more than just a job, they are looking for redemption. They want their life to matter, but we also want to matter more, just a little bit, than the others. That’s the definition of not being mediocre.
We want to be bett-er.
I like the way C.S. Lewis talks about this:
“Now what I want you to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive-is competitive by it’s very nature…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others.” -C.S. Lewis
Children of Grace
Andy Couch was a College minister at Harvard for over a decade, and he noticed a few things that I thought were incredibly insightful for this. He noticed that there were 3 types of students that he met at Harvard. 1) the Achiever and 2) the Legacies were the most common ones. The Achiever’s were the ones who had worked their entire education just to get a chance to come to Harvard, they stayed late and got there early and they would work constantly to get ahead.
The Legacy kids were much more laid back. They were someone’s grandson and they always knew they were going to Harvard, they belonged there and they knew it.
But then there were another group of students, the rare kind, who hadn’t always planned on going to Harvard, they had never considered themselves good enough, but one day someone suggested that they try sending in an application and they had somehow one the lottery of getting in to Harvard.
These are the kids, that won the awards and got the best results in life. They were less anxious than the achievers and not as entitled as the legacy kids. And Andy Couch calls this third group, “Children of Grace” Because for these kids, each day at Harvard was a gift of joy. They were keenly aware of being given something.
Then he notices, how many lotteries every kid who went to Harvard really had to win. The overwhelming majority of students there were firstborn, many were the only child, they almost never came from a home where the family of origin wasn’t intact. And they were born to a family with means. Just to be able to apply to Harvard they had already won a thousand lotteries they didn’t even know they were in.
They were all children of grace…it’s just that most of them didn’t know it.
You know the thing about Salieri that’s bothered me for a while…he was good, really good at what he did. Sure he was no Mozart, but he was around Mozart, he could have heard the best musician the world had ever known. Maybe he could have partnered with and enjoyed the world’s finest music just as it was being born.
He wanted to be Prince of something, even mediocrity, because he just couldn’t live with being a child of grace.