Most of Your Life Is Medium

Most of your life is medium foxprint Tiffany Yates Martin

Most of Your Life Is Medium

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This past Sunday evening as I was pulling out our trash and compost bins to put them on the curb, I felt a delightful flash of pleasure.

It wasn’t necessarily because of taking out the garbage, but it also wasn’t not because of taking out the garbage. My contentment was the culmination of a fairly nice few days that I was reflecting on as the weekend ended. 

On Thursday I took a rare weekday off so that my husband and I could go to an RV show with two of our dearest friends and have lunch on a downtown restaurant patio on what turned out to be an unexpectedly gorgeous day. That night I attended a self-defense workshop, where we practiced choke holds and how to break them, and I left winded and tired, with bruises up and down my arms from where my grappling partner had been exceptionally good at breaking my hold, and feeling empowered and confident.

Friday night the hubs and I took our first pottery class, where we struggled to throw recognizable cups and bowls in our virgin attempt on a pottery wheel, and laughed at our own failed attempts.

On Saturday we dropped into an open house for our trainer’s new gym, where we ran into a good friend and spent some time chatting with her before we had to get back home so I could do a virtual presentation for a writers’ organization. That afternoon a neighbor came over to assemble and deliver welcome bags to new residents as part of our community’s newly formed welcome committee, and we spent a couple of hours chatting and getting to know each other as we worked.

Sunday I played pickleball with some girlfriends, a recent activity five of us have started together, and we stayed afterward for a beer and a little catching up. When I got home I took out the garbage so my husband wouldn’t have to, and that evening we watched TV until bedtime.

It doesn’t sound like all that exciting a weekend, does it? Nothing special, just ordinary activities, none of them especially significant or memorable. And yet as I rolled out the trash cans I felt that warm flush of satisfaction.

Medium and the Demons

This awareness and simple enjoyment of average things is a relatively new skill for me. I was raised, as a lot of us were, in the quintessentially American environment of chasing peak performance and experiences. Our vocabulary was one of superlatives and stack-ranking: the best, the most, the worst, the least. If your answer to “How are you?” was anything less than a hearty “Great!” it was cause for concern.

Also like a lot of us, that environment created in me a ruthless sense of perfectionism. It wasn’t enough to try my best; I also had to be the best. It raised the bar not just on me, but on everything I experienced. If something wasn’t “the best” or “the most,” there was clearly something wrong. 

If we always have to be the best, that means we must be constantly monitoring everyone around us to figure out where we land in the pecking order. It’s draining and counterproductive to creativity and authenticity, and means the measure of our happiness rests on outside forces and other people, rather than ourselves and our own enjoyment.

The predictable and inevitable result was that anything that wasn’t a peak experience felt inadequate and unsatisfying. I was my own wet blanket, stifling the ample joy to be had from ordinary events in life.

It also engendered comparison and competition, two more of my demon cadre (Hey, demon buddies, how’s it going?), because if I always have to be the best, that means I must be constantly monitoring everyone around me to figure out where I land in the pecking order. It’s draining and counterproductive to creativity and authenticity, and means the measure of my happiness rests on outside forces and other people, rather than myself and my own enjoyment.

Read more: “On Writing Authentically and Pursuing the Perfect Smile”

Tim Urban, in one of his often insightful posts in his Wait but Why blog, refers to life’s series of ordinary events as “mundane Wednesday,” and they make up the bulk of our existence. If we’re unable to let ourselves savor and enjoy those ordinary, medium experiences, we are relegating ourselves to feeling vaguely unhappy and dissatisfied in the vast majority of our time.

Medium and the Muse

Most of the actual day-to-day effort of our creativity tends to be medium-level satisfying. We’re not kissed by the Muse every day, but neither are we probably stinking the joint up on the regular. Although occasionally we may have transcendent days of flow or frustrating days of failure, generally our efforts fall somewhere in between—as far as both the joy we take in doing them and the result. Most of our writing days are okay.

Then we work to hone those medium results in a constant effort to make them exceptional. Sometimes we succeed. More often we simply make them pretty good: entertaining or enjoyable or engaging enough to satisfy us, to garner an agent or a publishing contract, to please readers.

And yet how often do we remember to relish these simple pleasures of our creativity? Even on my most medium days of writing and creating, it’s still what I’d rather be doing than most anything else. It’s still satisfying and challenging and interesting.

How often do we savor the product of our effort, or the impact our work has on others? It’s so easy to get hung up on the fact that we have not achieved our pinnacle goals like becoming a New York Times bestseller, having millions of readers, joining the pantheon of authors who become household names and whose works endure for generations, that we fail to appreciate the fact that our work is out there in the world at all, being read by strangers.

It’s so easy to get bent out of shape over a single one-star review and discount the value of the rave review an Amazon reader left that said they loved it—or even the stack of three- and four-star reviews that say the readers found the story to be good, enjoyable, worth their time. What’s wrong with that?

Read more: “Are you ‘Just’-ifying Your Writing?”

I’m old enough to remember a time when a three-star review of something was literally labeled “good,” four was labeled “great,” and five stars was considered “excellent.” Most positive reviews awarded three- and four-star ratings—”good” and “great” were still rock-solid ratings, and it was a rarefied thing indeed that merited a rating as nearly perfect, as good as it got, transcendent.

When Amazon and other rating sites first began to gain popularity, I remember being bewildered at authors who got upset with anything less than a five-star review. Be truthful: On an objective scale of 1 to 5, how many books, movies, meals, or other experiences have you had that are actually fives? I can name a handful. If everything is considered to be peak perfection then it loses all meaning, like the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset that undermines our sense of what accomplishment truly is.

Read more: “Measure Your Success By What You’re Doing, Not What You Want to Do”

My weekend was a three-star weekend–quite good, not spectacular. I’m not going to be on my deathbed harking back to it as one of the highlights of my life. But it’s a brick in the overarching structure of my life that, laid together with a whole lot more of those nice steady bricks, helps build it solid and strong.

Yes, so many of our most memorable life experiences are the peaks and valleys, but they do not make up the fabric of what our life means or how we live it. Most of life is mundane Wednesday, aggregating together to create much greater impact on how happy and fulfilling your life is overall than those infrequent outliers. 

Most evenings Joel and I wind up at home as we did Sunday evening, sitting together on the sofa, often holding hands or cuddling while we watch fairly forgettable TV or movies. Sure, every now and then we might see or do something extraordinary, but for the most part it’s medium. Yet night after night, week after week, year after year, it creates an overall powerful sense of connection and contentment in our marriage.

Finding the Magic of Medium

Once in a while I have a truly exceptional experience with my work: an edit that helps an author transform a story into something astonishing, or the development of a new theory or technique that I think is especially insightful or original, or piece of writing or a presentation that’s as good as anything I’ve ever done.

Peak experiences aren’t what build a career or reputation, and nor are they the main components of a creative’s deep satisfaction with what they do. It’s the day-in-and-day-out work that serves both those purposes.

But those aren’t the experiences on which I’ve built my career or my reputation, and nor are they the main components of my deep satisfaction with what I do. It’s the day-in-and-day-out work that serves both those purposes. My dull, ordinary mediums. If I defined my success and happiness by only the peaks, I would spend an awful lot of time feeling discouraged and inadequate—as in fact I have in the past, and occasionally do even now when I forget the magic of mundane Wednesday.

I don’t always remember to notice and appreciate the mediums, but I’ve been thinking about these ideas as I work on a new presentation this week that I’m reasonably happy with. Is it the greatest presentation that’s ever been done, or even that I have ever done? Probably not. But I like it, I’ve had a good time working on it, and I think it offers practical, actionable, useful information to authors. It’s good enough.

I’m reflecting on them as I write and edit this very blog post, not sure whether it fully and perfectly expresses these thoughts and how they pertain to writers and creative work. I don’t think it’s the best post I’ve ever shared, or the most well written. But I think it expresses well enough what I was trying to say, and I hope it may be helpful to at least some authors. It’s good enough.

And—at least today, on this mundane little Thursday—that’s good enough for me.

How about you, authors—do you remember to notice and appreciate the “good enough” in your own life? How do you remember to take satisfaction in the pleasures of mundane Wednesday—or are you always focused on the brass ring? Do you battle with the “good enough” demons: perfectionism, comparison, competition, impostor syndrome? How do you cope with those episodes?

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • I too was raised in the super-achiever decades, and excellence was expected. I mean, EVERYONE could grow up to be President, right? (I know, not going there. Too easy)

    I love this post, because one of the advantages of being way past menopause is the softening perspective. I too enjoy the small things around me, and am smug and supremely satisfied with a productive weekend – even if it’s just having a clean house at the end of it.

    I’m trying to find one small thing to notice and be thankful for every day. It’s making me appreciate things in my writing, too – a good sentence or a nailed-down freshly written emotion.

    But so you know I don’t think I’m totally reformed – I DID use 2 adverbs in this!

    Reply
    • Heh, too easy indeed. 🙂 I love the idea of finding things to appreciate every day. I try to remember to do that–especially when I’m feeling unappreciative or morose or discouraged. It helps put things in perspective.

      And I am definitively NOT in the “no adverbs” camp! Adverbs can be entirely lovely (see what I did there?), and I never understand advice that removes any of the multifaceted elements of language from an author’s magic kit.

      Always nice to see you here, Laura!

      Reply
  • Tiffany, this post hit home for me. Like Laura, I grew up in a time when we were expected to excel, to give our very best. Nothing wrong with that, but when your eyes are always on the distant goal, you miss the joys of the simple mediums. As I grow older (maybe not wiser), I’ve started to notice and appreciate the everyday events that make up my life. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply
    • Great way to put it, Barb–I agree wholeheartedly that you miss the mediums when you’re always eyeing the highs. Highs are always delightful, but the mediums are what form the foundation of our lives. Appreciating them can make it so much more enjoyable. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  • My power words this year are – Change, Courage, and Gratitude. Thanks for reminding us to find joy and gratitude in the simple and mundane. Love it!

    Reply
  • I would definitely give your weekend four stars. A three star weekend is housecleaning, grocery shopping, laundry…

    Reply
    • Wow, you are generous. I would give a chore weekend a 2-star “fair” rating–although you have a point that a really successful punch-list weekend can be its own satisfaction. And I admit I do quite enjoy tasks like gardening and cooking, and running errands with the hubs.

      But even “fair” is not that bad, in my book. A 1-star “poor” I can understand feeling a bit let down by, but honest to God, if I’m feeling anywhere “fair” or above I have to count that as pretty all right. I’m still on the right side of the dirt! 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • Igor Chirashnya
    February 29, 2024 8:43 pm

    I’ve always been drawn to those nail-biting, high-stakes moments—the culmination of hard work, sweat, and maybe a few failures, all leading to that triumphant climax. But once the rush of dopamine fades, you’re left with this weird sense of emptiness, with a feeling of “Okay, now what?” And then you realize your next big moment might be weeks, months, or even years away.

    Recently I started to drive a lot of inspiration from my almost-16-year-old son, the high-performing athlete. During the last several years he racked up quite an impressive collection of national medals. But here’s the kicker—he couldn’t care less about those shiny accolades. Last August, some friends swung by and asked to see his national championship medal. He just shrugged, like, “Meh, they’re just pieces of metal.” When they peeped into his room, expecting to see a shrine of glory, they found his medal hanger empty. “Not relevant,” he said with a casual wave.

    Two days ago we returned from Brazil, where he snagged an Individual Bronze and Team Gold at the Pan American Cadet and Junior Championships. Those massive, beautiful medals—the ones that could fuel a parent’s bragging rights for years—got buried deep in his drawer. In his mind, the rankings are merely side effects of his grind. What he truly savors is the effort—the process itself. High ranking? Cool, the training seem to work right. Low ranking? Well, something needs to be adjusted. It’s all about learning and improving, match after match, the process that drives him.

    So yeah, to answer your question, for me it’s the journey that gets me going. Even if that journey occasionally (or sometimes most of the times) serves up a lukewarm 3-star review.

    But when it comes to my kids? Well, let’s just say I haven’t quite mastered the art of staying cool. These unlucky handyman and delivery folks won’t be hearing any tales of glory from me – I wouldn’t risk my sanity entering my teenage son’s apocalyptic room to retrieve the medals. Fortunately, I can use your comment section to legitimately express my parental pride in what seems to be relevant for this topic. Pity I can’t upload the photos, though.

    Reply
    • Damn, Igor, your son is a Jedi master. How impressive that he’s more interested in the work and the process of it than the results/glory of it. It’s a battle most of us fight a lot longer than that, I think. (Evidenced by your urge to share pics, which I totally think you should–just sneak right into that drawer, snap a stealth photo, and post that puppy right here for us.)

      That “now what” feeling–I get that. The goalposts move every time you reach them, which I think can be good insofar as it keeps us moving forward, improving, but it can also set us up to never be able to savor where we are and what we’ve already done. (Hopefully your son does enjoy his own extraordinary accomplishments, even as he keeps them in perspective.)

      I think we should redefine how we think of a middling review–three stars has traditionally been labeled “good,” not “lukewarm”! If I say something is good, then I quite liked it, even if it wasn’t the most transformative experience of my life. (I don’t have too many of those. Most of us don’t, I think.) Three stars is a little bit of all right. Two stars, now…I’ll give you that might be lukewarm–or, in the parlance of the old labeling in place when I was young, “fair.” (One star was labeled “poor,” and woe betide. I admit that would be a hard pill to swallow for me.)

      But the other facet of this too is that ratings are simply one person’s opinion, and you know what they’re like. 🙂 I learned that bone-deep when I was an entertainment critic for a Scripps-Howard paper for a time. I realized that I was assessing these plays and shows and bands from a single frame of reference, my own–and readers could and did disagree in comments to my reviews. That was wonderful training for me to let go of worrying too much about reviews of my own work. Some folks won’t like it, some will, and some will vibe like hell to it. I can’t control that–but the ones who love it will find me, and that’s my audience.

      Anyway…I loved your comment and all the thoughts you shared and provoked. Thanks. And congrats to your Baby Yoda son on both his achievements and his healthy state of mind 😉

      Reply

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