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Ask an Expert: How Do I Deal with Being Average?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ravi Venkatesan for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: HBR Staff/Adobe Images/Antonio Rodriguez

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Dear HBR Ascend,

I often feel like I’m mediocre at everything I do in life. I’m a good student, but not the best. I have a good job, but not the best. And I’m good at what I do, but not the best. What I achieve isn’t bad — it’s just not great either. Even in terms of my skills — sports, speaking, presenting — I feel like I’m just not good enough.

I know that you can’t be an expert at everything and being just “okay” at some things is fine if you excel in other areas. But I feel like I’m not a pro at anything. It’s only mediocrity everywhere. I have yet to get a full-time job, and I’m afraid of ending up with a mediocre one. I’m scared I’ll just earn mediocre money and lead a mediocre life.

I want to feel proud of myself. How can I move beyond this feeling and fear of mediocrity?


“Average” J.,

We asked Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, the Founder of Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), and the author of the book What The Heck Do I Do With My Life? to weigh in.

Dear “Average” J.,

Your situation reminds me so much of how I felt when I was in high school. I lacked confidence in myself, I was underperforming in my studies, and I was terrible at sports. I felt mediocre at everything. I remember my parents being both disappointed in me and concerned.

But then, everything changed. I had to miss school for an entire year because of a health issue, and it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I spent most of that year tucked away in the public library near my house. There, I discovered books on astronomy, biology, and chemistry and started reading voraciously. I found these new topics interesting, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling. I was also lucky enough to have a supportive teacher who was very encouraging of my new interests. She said to me, “Ravi, one day, you’re going to become a great scientist!” There was no evidence of that becoming a possibility then or now, but her faith in me was all I needed. I started excelling at academics, and my self-confidence soared.

Some years later, I went on to study at an elite engineering college. I realized that I was an average engineer compared to some of my peers who were stunningly gifted. But I was determined to succeed. For me, that meant working twice as hard as everyone else. Through that hard work, I’ve managed to find a couple of things I’m very good at.

I can communicate ideas simply. I’m able to connect with a lot of different people and inspire them to work towards a common goal. I know a little about a lot of different things and can therefore connect dots and see patterns quickly. I’m also quite good with ambiguous situations and complex problems. I’ve been able to leverage these strengths to do a lot of different and interesting things.

So first, I want to remind you that your life and career will be long. There’s a good chance that you just haven’t found what really sparks you yet. But I have some advice for how to help you get there, and how to cope until you do.

What are you good at?

Mediocre means “average.” In any population, by definition, exactly half of that population is above average, and the other half is below average. When you look at it that way, there’s nothing wrong with being mediocre at many or most things in your life. The trick is to find the one or two things that you excel at.

Every single person on this Earth has a special talent — yes, that includes you. Here’s the first two ways to find yours:

1. Follow your curiosity.

You’ve probably heard the advice “follow your passion” a million times, but I don’t think it’s very useful. Instead, I encourage you to follow your curiosity. You can do this by paying attention to what interests and absorbs you as you go through daily life. What catches your eye as you scroll through social media or surf the internet? What tasks at school or in your work do you enjoy the most? These small moments are clues that will help you find what really excites you.

Keep in mind that to feel fulfilled and avoid those feelings of mediocrity, it’s about more than just liking or being “good” at something. The secret to a joyous and impactful life is finding something that lies at the intersection of three things: what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and what the world values.

Finding that will take a lot of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to try out many different passions. What you end up loving and feeling great at might be very far away from the expectations you’ve always had for yourself. Experiment intentionally with different things until you find that magic combination of ability, interest, and value.

2. Lean into the hard work.

Quite early in life, I discovered that there are a lot of people who are smarter than I am in different ways. That felt unfair at times, because I often needed to work much harder than anyone else to get the same results. Now, I celebrate that hard work. If I have achieved reasonable success professionally, it represents the triumph of hard work over pure talent.

But even those who are naturally talented need to put in the work. For example, in his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows how extraordinary successful musicians, software programmers, and more get to where they are by practicing 10 times harder than their peers. When I look around me at all the people I admire — successful entrepreneurs, civic leaders, writers, actors – they all work incredibly hard. Moral of the story: There are no reliable short-cuts.

Try not to get impatient with this process. It can help to set clear goals that you can focus on and work towards. If you can find a community or cohort of people who are working towards a similar goal, that’s even better. For example, you might make a commitment to learn a new skill this year. Try joining a club that will help you practice and develop that skill.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Ravi Venkatesan is the Chairman of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet and the Founder of GAME. He is a former Chairman of Microsoft India and Bank of Baroda and serves on the boards of Hitachi Ltd and Rockefeller Foundation. His new book is called “What the Heck Do I Do With my Life?”


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