Welcome back to Productivity, Without Privilege. I’m your host, Alan Henry, and my book has a new cover! Look, look:
Isn’t it gorgeous? And of course, Seen, Heard, and Paid is available for preorder wherever books are sold! And if you’d like to support your local bookseller while I’m in the process of figuring out with my editor why it’s not listed at Bookshop, you can always grab it at Books Are Magic instead, or, if you’re really feeling up to it, ask your local bookstore to order you a copy! Any advance interest helps me out a ton, so thank you, whatever you do, even if it’s just telling your friends about the book, that helps more than you know as well!
Now then, let’s get into it this week, a topic that is near and dear to my heart: white male mediocrity.
First, I’m not saying white men are universally mediocre, that’s a super broad statement and couldn’t possibly be true. What I am saying is that white male mediocrity is probably one of the greatest issues with our society, and hang with me while I explain exactly why.
But before I do, let me back up. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being mediocre. We’re all mediocre at something. Just ask my teammates in just about every multiplayer game I play. Maybe you’re mediocre at cooking. Maybe you’re mediocre at event planning, but it’s somehow part of your job. Maybe you’re mediocre at scheduling meetings, but you have to do it anyway even though you wish you could get help with it.
But then, there are the other things you’re probably incredibly good at, and, ideally, those are the things that you get paid for. Those are the things you do because you enjoy doing them and you’re good at doing them. Maybe you’re good at them but you don’t particularly enjoy doing them, and that’s fine too—goodness knows I’ve definitely had jobs I was good at but absolutely hated doing. But that’s the thing: you bring your best work to those jobs on most days, and some days you kinda phone it in. You’re mediocre.
And that’s okay! Because on the days when you’re not feeling mediocre, you work hard and do your best and put your best effort into what you’re doing, because you’ll be judged if you don’t. And, if you’re a member of a marginalized group, whether that means you’re a racial minority, you’re a woman in an office of men or in a field where women have been mistreated and marginalized (and yup, that’s just about all of them,) you have a disability, you’re LGBTQ+, or anything else like that, you have to deal with being judged not just for how often you bring your A-Game but also for who you are.
Now let’s flip the script. We just lived through—and this isn’t up for debate—a national government composed of some of the most incredibly mediocre people in the world, and that’s me being kind. For years we saw headline after headline naming people who were vastly unqualified for the positions of power they were appointed to, and the support they got simply because the people involved with giving them that power resonated with them on an ideological level. So tell me: when is the last time you got a job, or any role that required you to perform on a certain level, simply because you and the people behind the scenes were ideologically aligned, and you were summarily and unequivocally unqualified for it?
Right, I didn’t think so. And that’s what makes those of us from marginalized groups different: We don’t have the luxury of being mediocre when we want to be. We have to hide our moments of mediocrity, couch them in terms of “bad days” and “feeling out of it” or “being in a mood,” while our privileged peers get to hold job titles they never perform up to. Why? Because they went to the right school, they knew the right person, someone wanted to give them a chance, or you never know, maybe they knew how to turn it on and bring their A-Game when they needed to land it, but decided once they had it they could coast on mediocrity. Who knows, but how they got it is less important.
You might be thinking I’m campaigning for no one to be mediocre, but this is actually the opposite: we all have the right to be mediocre sometimes. We all have days where we just can’t make our fingers move across the keyboard, where we can’t force ourselves to respond to that email that should be easy. That should be okay instead of looked down upon. We should all have the right to have those days where we just don’t bring our A Game, either because we can’t, or we choose not to, without the fear that we’ll be judged for it in a way others aren’t, and suffer consequences that our peers won’t.
Here’s an example: You may have seen that hilarious review of what’s since been called “the worst michelin starred restaurant ever,” but what you may not have seen is the chef’s semi-unhinged response to the review, complete with visual aids so we can truly understand exactly how much of an artist he is.
This is what happens when you drink your own Kool-Aid.
Part of what makes the chef’s response so perfect—and a perfect example of this kind of mediocrity—is that at no point does he engage in good faith with the review or its author. He simply regurgitates a poor understanding of art to appeal to a self-appointed authority and then sneers at her in his response. You can predict the rest. Every comedic villain is like this: He thinks she’s just someone who “doesn’t understand” his greatness and creativity. That latter part I would have honestly expected in a response if the full response weren’t so mustache-twirlingly bad.
But that’s the thing: What he is, exactly, is mediocre, and at some point he either just chose not to bring his A-Game anymore, or more likely, decided he didn’t have to in order to deserve and continue deserving the praise and attention his restaurant received.
And that’s where it ties back to white male mediocrity on a higher level. I’m very very pressed for examples of when people of color, women, disabled people, and queer people could just slide into a role of pressure and attention to praise and thrive…without bringing their best to it, to the point of burnout. I have, however, several examples of mediocre white men who manage to burn themselves out—somehow—when asked to perform on par with their colleagues, if not clearly being allowed to do worse. I’m willing to bet that you have in your life or career, too.
So until we’re all allowed to be mediocre sometimes, (but never to the point where we’re actively so bad that we get to fail upwards and persist in the spaces we should have long been ejected from,) and all equally judged accordingly, we’ll continue to get stories like this, and they’ll be funny! And then we’ll think about the mediocre people that make our lives harder, or the lives of our loved ones harder that are more difficult to laugh at. Where someone’s mediocrity made you have to stay late or work harder, or stresses out your spouse or is your manager’s best friend so they don’t get criticized like you do. And we’ll feel seen, maybe a little angry.
And maybe that’s part of the reason stories like these resonate in the first place.
The barbershop is a refuge for Black men—but not if they’re queer, by Juwan J. Holmes: Juwan is a friend and I love his work in general, but this particular piece was special to me because he articulates something that I’ve had trouble with in barbershops since I was a child: the constant pressure to be a certain kind of Black man—the kind I actually have never ever been. Juwan’s story is about being queer in those spaces, and while I had difficulty in those spaces long before queerness came into the picture for me, he explains why in a way that made me feel seen.
Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun, by Barton Gellman: This piece probably doesn’t need my assistance when it comes to signal boosting, but the part of this story that really resonated with me was how well organized and how well educated the insurrectionists who took part in the January 6th attack on the Capitol really were. Many folks—including folks in major media—buy into the idea that these people were all hicks and hillbillies, and we continue that narrative at our own peril. POC know what its like to live in a low-level state of fear that their neighbors don’t respect or regard their humanity already. Everyone else? Welcome.
This Conference Puts Accessibility in Gaming Front and Center, by Grant Stoner: Okay, in my defense, I edited this piece, but Grant Stoner is one of the best journalists I’ve worked with covering disability issues in gaming and gaming communities. His contributions to WIRED Games are invaluable, and every time I edit his work I learn something new. In this case, when he pitched this story to me I was surprised (and happy) there’s a whole conference of people working towards disability inclusion in video games—and the piece turned out so well.
My recommendation this week is a Twitter account. Well, more like the person behind it, and that person is Julia B. Chan, the newly appointed editor in chief of The 19th! Part of this is to congratulate her, obviously, but Julia is an amazing journalistic force that I’ve been more than happy to watch sweep through more than one newsroom from afar.
It would be easy for me to say “support The 19th,” which you absolutely should, but also support Julia in her new gig, give her a follow on Twitter, and keep an eye on the things she’s working on. You’ll come away massively informed and entertained. She’s the best, and she's by no means mediocre.
Now, I know the next few weeks are going to be pretty tight, but I’ll try to see you back here in two. Oh, and if you haven’t already, do preorder my book, Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized. I mean, I have to ask, don’t I? Thanks if you have, and thanks if you plan to. And thanks if you can’t, but wish you could! See you soon.