The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mediocre People

Mediocrity Green Road Sign with Dramatic Clouds, Sun Rays and Sky.

I’m pretty mediocre. I’m ashamed to admit it.  I’m not even being sarcastic or self-deprecating. I’ve never done anything that stands out as, “whoah! This guy made it into outerspace! Or…this guy has a best selling novel! Or…if only Google had thought of this!” I’ve had some successes and some failures (well-documented here) but never reached any of the goals I had initially set. Always slipped off along the way, off the yellow brick road, into the wilderness.

I’ve started a bunch of companies. Sold some. Failed at most. I’ve invested in a bunch of startups. Sold some. Failed at some, and the jury is still sequestered on a few others. I’ve written some books, most of which I no longer like (except the ones you get when you sign up for my newsletter on the right). I can tell you overall, though, everything I have done has been distinguished by its mediocrity, its lack of a grand vision, and any success I’ve had can be just as much put in the luck basket as the effort basket.

That said, all people should be so lucky. We can’t all be grand visionaries. We can’t all be Picassos. We want to make our business, make our art, sell it, make some money, raise a family, and try to be happy. My feeling, based on my own experience, is that aiming for grandiosity is the fastest route to failure. For every Mark Zuckerberg there are 1000 Jack Zuckermans. Who is Jack Zuckerman? I have no idea. That’s my point. If you are Jack Zuckerman and are reading this, I apologize. You aimed for the stars and missed. Your re-entry into the atmosphere involved a broken heat shield and you burned to a crisp by the time you hit the ocean. Now we have no idea who you are.

If you want to get rich, sell your company, have time for your hobbies, raise a halfway decent family (with mediocre children, etc), and enjoy the sunset with your wife on occasion, here are some of my highly effective recommendations.

– Procrastination – In between the time I wrote the last sentence and the time I wrote this one I played (and lost) a game of chess. My king and my queen got forked by a knight. But hey, that happens. Fork me once, shame on me. Etc.

Procrastination is your body telling you you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing. When you procrastinate as an entrepreneur it could mean that you need a bit more time to think about what you are pitching a client. It could also mean you are doing work that is not your forte and that you are better off delegating. I find that many entrepreneurs are trying to do everything when it would be cheaper and more time-efficient to delegate, even if there are monetary costs associated with that. In my first business, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head the first time I delegated a programming job to someone other than me. At that time, I went out on a date. Which was infinitely better than me sweating all night on some stupid programming bug (thank you, Chet, for solving that issue).

Try to figure out why you are procrastinating. Maybe you need to brainstorm more to improve an idea. Maybe the idea is no good as is. Maybe you need to delegate. Maybe you need to learn more. Maybe you don’t enjoy what you are doing. Maybe you don’t like the client whose project you were just working on. Maybe you need to take a break. There’s only so many seconds in a row you can think about something before you need to take time off and rejuvenate the creative muscles. This is not for everyone. Great people can storm right through. Steve Jobs never needed to take a break. But I do.

Procrastination could also be a strong sign that you are a perfectionist. That you are filled with shame issues. This will block you from building and selling your business. Examine your procrastination from every side. It’s your body trying to tell you something. Listen to it.

[See also, “5 Great Things About Procrastination”]

(phallic greatness: Elon Musk’s space rocket)

– Zero-tasking – there’s a common myth that great people can multitask efficiently. This might be true but I can’t do it. I have statistical proof. I have a serious addiction. If you ever talk on the phone with me there’s almost 100% chance I am simultaneously playing chess online. The phone rings and one hand reaches for the phone and the other hand reaches for the computer to initiate a one minute game. Chess rankings are based on a statistically generated rating system. So I can compare easily how well I do when I’m the phone compared with when I’m not on the phone. There is a three standard deviation difference. Imagine if I were talking on the phone and driving. Or responding to emails. It’s the same thing I’m assuming: phone calls cause a three standard deviation subtraction in intelligence. And that’s the basic multi-tasking we all do at some point or other.

So great people can multitask but since, by definition, most of us are not great (99% of us are not in the top 1%), its much better to single-task. Just do one thing at a time. When you wash your hands, hear the sound of the water, feel the water on your hands, scrub every part. Be clean. Focus on what you are doing.

Often, the successful mediocre entrepreneur should strive for excellence in ZERO-tasking. Do nothing. We always feel like we have to be “doing something” or we (or, I should say “I”) feel ashamed. Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet, to not think of anything at all.

Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.

Not when we are rushing and panicking.

[See also, “Multi-tasking will Kill You”]

– Failure: As far as I can tell, Larry Page has never failed. He went straight from graduate school to billions. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few others. But again, by definition, most of us are pretty mediocre. We can strive for greatness but we will never hit it. So it means we will often fail. Not ALWAYS fail. But often.

My last 16 out of 17 business attempts were failures. I made so many mistakes in my first successful business I’m almost embarassed to recount them. I remember one time I was trying to pitch Tupac’s mom that I should do the website for her dead son. I had a “CD” (what’s that?) of all my work. I went to Tupac’s manager’s office and he said, “ok, show me what you got”. The only problem was: I had never used a Windows-based machine. Only Macs and Unix machines. So I honestly had no idea how to put my CD into the computer and then view its contents. And I had gone to graduate school in computer science. He said, “you have got to be kidding me”.

It was a $90,000 gig. It would’ve met my payroll for at least two months. It was a done deal until I walked into his office. I left his office crying while he was laughing. When I came back to my office everyone asked, “How did the meeting go?” I said, “I think it went pretty well.” And then I went home and cried some more. I roll that way.

Then I bought a Windows-based PC for myself and learned how to use it. I don’t think I ever bought a Mac again actually. It’s possible to learn from successes. But it’s much easier to learn from failures. Ultimately, life is a sentence of failures, punctuated only by the briefest of successes. So the mediocre entrepreneur learns two things from failure: First he learns directly how to overcome that particular failure. He’s highly motivated to not repeat the same mistakes. Second, he learns how to deal with the psychology of failure. Mediocre entrepreneurs fail A LOT. So they get this incredible skill of getting really good at dealing with failure. This translates to monetary success.

The mediocre entrepreneur understands that persistence is not the self-help cliche “Keep going until you hit the finish line!”. The key slogan is, “Keep failing until you accidentally no longer fail.” That’s persistence.

(has never failed)

– Not original – I’ve never come up with an original idea in my life. My first successful business was making web software, strategies, websites for Fortune 500 companies. Not an original idea but at the time, in the 90s, people were paying exorbitant multiples for such businesses. My successful investments all involved situations where I made sure the CEOs and other investors were smarter than me. I wrote a TechCrunch article on this titled “My Angel Investor Checklist”. 100% of my zeros as an angel investor were situations where I thought I was smart. I wasn’t. I’m mediocre.

The best ideas are when you take two older ideas that have nothing to do with each other, make them have sex with each other, and then build a business around the bastard, ugly child that results. The child that was so ugly nobody else wanted to touch it. Look  at Facebook: combine the internet with stalking. Amazing!

And, by the way, it was about the fifth attempt at such a social network.  Twitter: combine internet with antiquated SMS protocols. Ugly! But it works. Ebay, combine ecommerce with auctions. The song, “I’ll Be There”. Combine Mariah Carey with Michael Jackson. If Justin Bieber sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” it would be a huge hit. I might even listen to it.

– Poor networking – I’m that guy. You know the one at the party that doesn’t talk to anyone and stands in the corner. I never go to tech meetups. I usually say no to very nice networking dinner invitations. I like to stay home and read. When I was running businesses I was often too shy to talk to my employees. I would call my secretary from downstairs and ask if the hallway was clear, then ask her to unlock my door and I’d hurry upstairs and lock the door behind me. That particular company failed disastrously.

But many people network too much. Entrepreneurship is hard enough. It’s 20 hours a day of managing employees, customers, meetings, and product development. And the buck stops here sort of thing. And then what are you going to do? Network all night? Save that for the great entrepreneurs. Or the ones who are about to fail. The mediocre entrepreneur works his 20 hours, then relaxes when he can. It’s tough to make money. Not a party.

 Do anything to get a “yes” – Here’s a negotiation I did. I was starting stockpickr.com and meeting with the CEO of thestreet.com. He wanted his company to have a percentage of stockpickr.com and in exchange he would fill up all of our ad inventory. I was excited to do the deal. I said, “Ok, I was thinking you would get 10% of the company.” He laughed and said, “No. 50%”. He didn’t even say “We would like 50%”. He just said, “50%”. I then used all my negotiating skills and came up with a reply. “Okay. Deal.”

I’m a salesman. I like people to say yes to me. I feel insecure when they so “No” or, even worse, if they don’t like me. When I started a company doing websites we were pitching to do “miramax.com”. I said, “$50,000”. They said, “No more than $1,000 and that’s a stretch.” I used my usual technique: “Deal!”

But the end results: in one case thestreet.com had a significant stake so that gave them more psychological stake. And for my first business miramax.com was now on my client list. So Con Edison had to pay a lot more. I’m a mediocre salesman and probably a poor negotiator although I try to learn from the best. But consequently, I get more deals done, I get the occasional loss leader, and then ultimately the big fish gets reeled in if I get enough people to say “yes”. It’s like asking every girl on the street to have sex with you. One out of 100 will say “yes”. In my case it might be one out of a million but you get the idea.

– Poor judge of people. The mediocre entrepreneur doesn’t “Blink” in the Malcolm Gladwell sense. In Gladwell’s book he often talks about people who can form snap correct judgements in two or three seconds.

My initial judgement when I meet or even see people is this: I hate you.

And then I veer from that to too trusting. Finally, after I bounce back and forth, and through much trial and error, I end up somewhere in the middle. I also tend to drop people I can’t trust very quickly. I think the great entrepreneur can make snap judgements and be very successful with it. But that doesn’t work for most people.

At this point, when I meet someone, I make sure I specifically don’t trust my first instincts. I get to know people more. I get to understand what their motivations are. I try to sympathize with whatever their position is. I listen to them. I try not to argue or gossip about them before I know anything. I spend a lot more time getting to know the people who I want to bring closer. I have to do this because I’m mediocre and I’m a lot more at risk of bringing the wrong people into my circle.

So by the time I’ve decided to be close to someone: a client, an employee, an acquirer, an acquiree, a wife, etc I’ve done a lot of work into thinking about them. This means I can’t waste time thinking about other things, like how to put a rocketship on Jupiter. But overall it’s worked.

“I thought being mediocre is supposed to be bad?” one might think. Shouldn’t we strive for greatness. And the answer is: “Of course we should! But let’s not forget that 9 out of 10 drivers think they are ‘above the median in driving skill.'” People overestimate themselves. Don’t let overestimation get in the way of becoming fabulously rich, or at least successful enough that you can have your freedom, feed your family, and enjoy other things in life.

Being mediocre doesn’t mean you won’t change the world. It means being honest with yourself and the people around you. And being honest at every level is really the most effective habit of all if you want to have massive success.

[See also, “The 100 Rules for Being an Entrepreneur” and PLEASE follow me on Twitter at @jaltucher

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  • http://twitter.com/abbyferri Abby Ferri

    James, this is great. My procrastination is always rewarded as I hit that lightbulb moment eventually! And it’s always “perfectly” timed. It’s the story of my life. But maybe that’s just me and people like me. I can’t force myself to do a project at a specific time. I have to lollygag on the internet or whatever until something hits, then I focus (almost) 100% on it for a short burst until it’s done. I just have to trust myself.

  • RptLife

    Making money is easy, but it will always involve some things you don’t want to do, and there will always be people you would rather not deal with. But making money, in and of itself, is just focused energy. Simple. Focus energy on just one thing, sacrifice your family, health and mental well-being and boom…you’re making money.

    I’ve recently accepted being mediocre myself in certain aspects of my life, and I’m relieved. I can now focus on health and mental well-being. I don’t have to play a game that I did not sign up for, but I’m sustaining myself financially and I’m full of love. What more do ya need.

    • tsipareht

      Hi RptLife – in what ways have you focused your energy into becoming financially free if you don’t mind me asking…I need some guidance and advice. Any would help. Thanks!

      • RptLife

        Hi there – I’ve made a shift in priorities. My energy is focused on doing things that show a return as a plus, not a minus. As a natural consequence, I’m buying less “stuff”. I see “stuff” as a minus. Money in my savings account is a plus, so my energy goes to putting the money there, instead of buying more “stuff”.

        Same energy……different result.
        Getting my work done during a limited amount of time every day consistently, every day, means more money and peace of mind and is a plus. Exercise equals better health, a plus. Cooking my own food, better health, a plus. I’ve committed to no longer “spending” my time with no return. I read…I learn. I write…I grow. These activities don’t “cost” me.
        Time with friends no longer involves binge-drinking which sucks your energy and ability to make money away. Time with friends means connecting in a positive healthy way. If friends are not positive, then they don’t get my energy.
        Worrying about money is a minus, a waste of energy and time. It doesn’t bring back any positive return. Doing actual work and then saving the money is a positive return.
        I only do things where I will gain something or enrich myself or someone else in some way. If i’m not helping myself or someone else, I just don’t do it. It’s an even exchange of energy spent and blessings received. I don’t even think of it as money anymore. It’s just a different form of energy.

        I’m glad you asked me this because I really had to think about it. Every day I have to think about how I’m spending my energy, and it’s always a challenge.

        • Spankin’ Elroy

          I’m also glad that you were asked that as your response was hugely helpful to me as well. I do my very best to never have hatred for anything or anyone, for the reasons you mentioned…only so much energy in a day and I can’t afford to waste any on negativity.
          Earlier this year I left my 8-5 to trade full time. I enjoy the freedom, working my own hours (although it’s waaay more than 40 now) and the healthier frame of mind I have every day. I also left because I hated that place and everything it stood for….yes, hated it.
          The only way to end the hatred was to remove myself from the situation, so I did. I’ve often found that apathy is a good substitute for hatred, but I had run out of even that. Thanks for your insight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.brooks.549 Randy Brooks

    I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more mediocre my life seems to me. How comforting it is to read your words. You sound like a kindred soul. Unfortunately, I suspect you are writing this all tongue in cheek. I enjoyed reading it very much anyway.

  • aronx

    “Keep failing until you accidentally no longer fail.”

    Such a great line, and so god damn true for all us non over privileged types.

  • nearlyfreelance

    What interesting timing. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of being average. Every book we read talks about having a phenomenal business, and that pressure becomes a paralyzing issue for many business owners like me.

    Just like you say in your post there have to be the 99% of businesses so that the 1% can even exist. Why not make the most of our 99-percentness? Why not focus on having a satisfying average business?

    I’m sure, for me, some of it is rooted in my own need for affirmation, but I think I’m really tired of trying to be something “great.” Thanks for the humorous and inspiring words today. I needed it.

  • http://www.offroadfinance.com/ W at Off-Road Finance

    Zero and one tasking are great ideas that don’t get nearly enough air time. Right on!

  • Dan

    Be careful about asking 100 girls to have sex with you on the street however, the 1 who says yes may not be the most clean and professional girl you’ll have met in your life.

    • Pimphand

      She’s probably professional…

  • http://www.facebook.com/benajibayassine Yassine Ghailan Benajiba

    This is the best article so far!! .. had a great laugh and learned a bunch! .. Thanks James! really, thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/aaronwall aaron wall

    Totally not your fault on Tupac. I mean, he wasn’t known for being PC. ;)

  • Matt

    Your idea of success seems to be based on what the world views as a success, which often isn’t, and which also seems to the premise for most of your blog posts. Weird.

  • ne2nj

    James, if you are mediocre, I’m scum, therefore I’m inclined to disagree with you. If you can achieve honesty, freedom (from work you hate), health, and happiness as I finally have (in my 50s) and I suspect you have (in your 40s), you are the exception, therefore exceptional.

  • Faminz

    Re the image of the guy and girl in the Learjet. Which one are you saying has never failed? Lol.

    • http://2012prophecy.net DM I.M.Cango

      That was not a learjet. It was a 777

  • kamalravikant

    Burst out laughing…..oh that’s so funny. “Your re-entry into the atmosphere involved a broken heat shield and you burned to a crisp by the time you hit the ocean.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/Rudixit Rudy Dixit

    This is insane…one of the best reads on the net ! Procrastination is what kills everything

  • http://2012prophecy.net DM I.M.Cango

    “One of these days I’m going to get help for my procrastination problem.”

  • Joel

    What an interesting read, James! Despite all the failures it’s good to know I am on the right track with persistence.

  • http://twitter.com/statspotting StatSpotting.com

    Its funny you mention honesty. If everyone tries to be this, we will have a world full of mediocrites

  • http://twitter.com/KittyKilian Kitty Kilian

    ;-) The thing you excel at is being honest about your dark side – the one we all like to hide

  • http://twitter.com/Flourish_Thrive Tracy & Robin

    Love this! Hilarious!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.redbendad Michael Redbendad

    What you call Zero Tasking, I call Nulltitasking – the act of failing to do several tasks simultaneously.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Syarzhuk Sergey Kazachenko

      Where’s the “Like” button here?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Connor/100000284561197 Peter Connor

    Excellent, not mediocre, column James! Just one additional observation; people not only overestimate themselves, they are far too optimistic about outcomes in everything from love to business to war, often with disastrous results. For example, the countries on BOTH sides of WWI were convinced that the war would be over by Christmas 1914.

  • http://twitter.com/quilesBaker Joel Quiles Baker
  • kb

    easily guilty of most counts. but I write anyway, and choose to exploit it. When I get around to it.

  • Alessandro

    Great Post!
    I am really mediocre but I am still alive! Some months ago I thought to kill myself, Now I have a mediocre work that will pay the bills and I can feed my 4 kids.
    If you are alive you can try again, from mediocre to a little better. My idea is ‘try to improve’.
    The first day at work they gave me a mediocre company laptop (PC), I asked to use my Mac, but NO way.
    Every time I open my PC I think ‘I can improve….’
    Thank you James

  • mikeyhell

    The paradox: accepting one’s own mediocrity in certain realms is an extraordinary act of courage.

  • dorrietamespowell

    If you count yourself as mediocre, it doesn’t seem such a bad place to be! The middle way might just be the path to enlightenment after all :)

  • Packard27

    James,
    Superb article today. Absolutely superb…and entertaining to boot.
    Well done,

  • Hindenburg

    Cheers from this well-adjusted underachiever.

  • http://twitter.com/robbnotes Robb Lejuwaan

    Refreshing ideas. I think we get into lots of trouble when we attempt to be like those who’ve never failed. Lesson: live in reality, accept yourself and don’t take life too seriously.

  • Andy Brice

    Bill Gates’ first project wasn’t very successful:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traf-O-Data

  • http://libertarianquotes.blogspot.com johnny.deathmatch

    Thanks for all the great articles and for making the Internet a better place!

  • Shirley Ann Goerlitz

    Great post…your last sentence sums it up so well. Wishing you well.

  • hsharif

    You’re a funny dude

  • APN

    Great read! Thank you for saying the words that are trapped in my head

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Glyn-Lewis/100001356006932 Glyn Lewis

    love the article all true what you say

  • bcalis

    I’m an opera singer and I love the advice you give. It all applies to the arts as well!

  • abstractsbybrian

    so.. why do I keep following you?
    oh.. maybe misery does like company. it makes us all feel good.

  • Bill Powers

    I was “introduced” to you James by Free Talk Live. They read your blog post on their show and I’ve been hooked ever since. Thank you sir.

  • Cal

    This is the best thing you’ve written, but it’s still not on Quora?

  • ArtTechLaw

    Hilarious and so true. I’m definitely a “Yes” negotiator, and keep beating myself up about it.

    Stopping, regrouping, and moving forward despite failures and personality weaknesses is a skill in and of itself.

  • Keep trying. Never give up.

    Absoluetly hilarious. The first step is admitting the truth. And you have succeeded. Job well done.

  • Heather

    Needed this today. Thank you.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for the great post James! I’d like to contribute. I wrote a similar post about 7 basic habits that make life better. I think you and your readers would appreciate it. Thanks again and check it out! http://www.andrewsapproachcoaching.com/2013/12/7-basic-habits-that-make-life-better.html?showComment=1387382310001

  • Guest

    I think you have deliberately confused two different things here. The first is knowing your limitations. As you note, not all of us are going to be Einstein or Magic Johnson or Bill Gates. Who we are is OK. And comparing ourselves to larger than life examples is destined for frustration and self-deprecation.

  • frharry

    I think you have deliberately confused two different things here. The first is knowing your limitations. As you note, not all of us are going to be Einstein or Magic Johnson or Bill Gates. There is a reason we know their names. They are the exceptions, not the rule. Who we are is OK. And comparing ourselves to larger than life examples is destined for frustration and self-deprecation. We should be who we are capable of being.

    But that’s where the comparison ends. Living into our potentials is not a burden, it is our life calling. We can live as limited a life as we choose. But why would we choose that? Most often the reasons are laziness, unwillingness to endure pain and delay gratification and fear, as M. Scott Peck lays out in his book The Road Less Travelled. Most people don’t have regrets at the end of the lives that they didn’t live into their own mediocrity more regularly.

    While it is possible to choose a limited life, a life of mediocrity, one should not be surprised when people see you in limited, mediocre ways. Respect is not an entitlement. It’s based on merit. And mediocre lives may be acceptable to existential slackers, but they’re rarely respect-worthy.