on habits and mediocrity (6/6)

It should come as no surprise that there’s a stigma around work and productivity.

The forty-hour workweek (despite its opponents) persists. Material goods remain paramount to our “wealth”. Self-help influencers preach the latest “hack” to simplify your life.

The most prominent of these advancements, however, has been the push for stronger habits, most predominantly brought to light by author James Clear.

“Habits,” Clear says, “are the compound interest on self-improvement.” For every habit you create, the better that you become. For every habit you reinforce, the stronger you can be.

Yet, this pursuit of habits and a sense of behavioral optimization undermines the very essence of the achievement we strive for. With each habit reinforced, with each behavior normalized, each individual action becomes more and more irrelevant. What was once remarkable, or an achievement, now falls to the backdrop of an everyday routine.

Habits make things less significant, in a way.

If everyone was to swear in their everyday conversations, swearing wouldn’t be nearly as taboo. If everyone were to drive without wearing a seatbelt, it wouldn’t be such a crime to be unbuckled.

The pursuit of habits and routines, as praiseworthy as it may seem, is a double-edged sword. If we hope to make progress commonplace through discipline, through reinforcement, we risk diluting its very essence. The exceptional becomes pedestrian, the remarkable fades into the mundane backdrop of daily life. We become so focused on optimizing processes that we lose the magic in our achievements, our actions.

Walker Percy’s, in his wonderful novel The Moviegoer, says it best:

“It will be remembered for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.”

Our obsession with routine, with productivity has rang Percy’s statement ever so true. And the cultural fixation it brings, this systematization of greatness into “optimized” behaviors, our national ideal it may be.