The Art of Mediocrity

“You will achieve your dreams. You are unique and special. You can change the world.” As much as celebrities and our parents love to tell us these things, reality tends to be a bit more honest: We’re all pretty average at most things.

This is rather self-evident when you think about it. If you gathered everyone in the world to play a game of golf, you’d have Tiger Woods at the top 1% of the spectrum and a guy who couldn’t hit the ball off the tee somewhere near the bottom. Most of us would fall somewhere in the middle.

This is true for everything in life. Some of us are born with a high capacity to learn. Others are born with great physical skills. And some of us even have superhuman genes. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Some of us are born with mental and physical disabilities that limit the facets of daily living. Others are just naturally unskilled at certain things. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

For me, my strengths include having the artistic ability to write interesting songs and a deep understanding of philosophical issues. I excel at these things because I’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy into them. Through countless repetitions and exercises I’ve been able to learn and expand my knowledge in these areas.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember we are all limited in the time and energy we have in this world. If you’re like most people, you spend your attention on a few important things: Your social life, school, work, a significant other and maybe a couple of hobbies. However, this comes at a price. The truth is that the more things you value in life, the less time you will have to improve the quality of what’s most significant. Quality and quantity are always a trade off. Attention is zero sum.

So what about those exceptional people? The people that are the very best at what they do? The Michael Jordans, Tom Bradys, and Paul McCartneys of the world? These people are 1) incredibly lucky and 2) focus almost purely on quality. #1 is obvious. For #2, all of their energy must be focused on their specific discipline so that they can maintain being the very best at what they do.

This means they must neglect the quantity of many other areas in their life. This is true for all successful elites regardless of the distorted perceptions you may have about them. If you want to be the best in any specific discipline, you must sacrifice the opportunity cost of nearly everything else to achieve it. And even then, it’ll require the luck of environmental circumstance.

So to the average person out there(which is most of you), here’s a few words of advice:

Accept that you must make sacrifices in order to excel in the things you care about the most. Accept that other people must do the same. Accept that even then, this doesn’t guarantee success. Accept the luck of being born with your specific genes, environment and opportunities which have led to this very moment. Accept the art of mediocrity- a part of being human.

Ethics and Economic Justice

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I have been reading David Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons the past couple of months and I must say, it’s been a wild ride. I recommend it to anyone that subscribes to utilitarian ethics and having their world views pushed to the limit. It may seem farfetched to some, but I suspect Parfit will go down as one of the greats in the history of philosophy.

The book covers a variety of loosely related topics, but I want to focus on the type of utilitarianism he concludes from his arguments: Prioritarianism. Prioritarianism holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well being (Utilitarianism) with extra weight given to worse off individuals. Let’s look at an example to sharpen the distinction between the two.

Imagine a two-person society: its only members are Jim and Pam. Jim has an extremely high level of well-being, is rich, and lives a blissful life. Pam, by contrast, has an extremely low level of well-being, is in extreme poverty, and lives a hellish life.

Now imagine that we have some free resources ($10,000 for example) that we may distribute to the members of this society as we see fit. Under normal utilitarian circumstances, the $10,000 will generate more well-being for Pam than it will for Jim. Thus giving the money to Pam would be the morally correct choice. However, let’s imagine slightly different circumstances.

Jim, for whatever reason, even though he is already filthy rich and very well-off, would gain just as much well-being by receiving the $10,000 as Pam would. Suddenly utilitarians don’t have a preference on who gets the money because both Jim and Pam’s well-being would increase the same. Prioritarianism on the other hand would give the money to Pam, because she is worse off than Jim.

Furthermore, prioritarianism doesn’t act just as a tie breaker for well-being, sometimes it favors priority over a small amount of well-being in order to emphasize compassion. So if Jim were to somehow gain more well-being from the money than Pam, Prioritarianism still wouldn’t necessarily favor him. It is important to note that the amount of well-being traded for priority is arbitrary, but in most cases we can rely on common sense. But why is that?

Well there is a good reason: There are diminishing returns on the value of goods and money. Would Jim be able to tell the difference between having 1 billion dollars and 1.00001 billion dollars? No, he wouldn’t have a clue. In fact there have even been studies, including a prominent one by Princeton University Researchers, that money doesn’t buy happiness after one earns $75000 a year.

It is estimated that it is around this point where money is no longer a primary concern in ones life. People can focus on health, relationships and leisure’s without the stress of paying the bills at the end of the month, which is a real fear for millions of Americans.

If you subscribe to prioritarianism ethics, a certain amount of wealth redistribution becomes fundamental to a healthy and moral society. In a society where Walmart’s Walton family (one of many examples) owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined, millions of which are living in poverty and struggling to survive, can a rational person really argue that this disparity in wealth is ethical?

Welfare state capitalism may currently be the best economic model, but its inability to redistribute wealth fairly will continue to raise questions on how it can be improved. Economic justice isn’t about equality. It’s about removing the gross excess at the top to help prevent suffering for those at the bottom.