Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Why you shouldn’t be better than average

Despite what people may tell their children, it’s not true that your best is good enough.

In fact, it’s too good. By a long chalk. What you should be aiming for is average.

I learnt that early on in Junior School where I excelled. As my birthday is early September, I had something of a headstart so I’m not claiming the whole thing was down to my genius level brainpower. But I was in Mensa. Mum tried to get school to move me up a year because I was so bright but they wouldn’t allow it (I think) because it would put me at the wrong age to move up to Comprehensive. I took their implicit advice and, using my cleverness, worked out that the truly intelligent thing to do was be more average since I had just been told there was little reward for being better than my average efforts.

Or maybe I just peaked early, who knows?

From then on I might have been in top sets but I got A’s and B’s, not straight A’s. I mediocred through A-levels on B’s and C’s and got a 2:1 at university (apart from my dissertation which was a 1st but possibly just because I was the only Philosophy student who had the temerity to write about Superman. Not the Nietzsche one, but the pants-on-the-outside one of Superman I and, more controversially, II). I got a B on my TESOL course too. I got so good at putting only my average into anything that I probably lost the ability of doing any better for a while (my MA was a different story as, by then, I had learned the spurring on power of competitiveness.)

At age 8, I was way ahead of the bell curve. Mediocre is the new good.

Life rewards mediocrity and the evidence is all around us.

The most recent example is the new book, Grey, by E. L. James, hell, all four of her books. She has successfully rewritten her awful first book merely by inserting some new lines of thought from Christian’s POV into the old story (apparently some pages are almost identical). Christian’s inner goddess is not an inner god though. No, it’s the “voice from his pants”.

You see, like the tweenie me, E.L. James knows there was no point writing a really good book. She could have written a lyrical, thought provoking tale of two people falling in love and overcoming one of their stalker tendencies and the other’s inability to email but who the hell would have bought that? E. L. James is a genius, writing three spoof books and getting away with it and then writing a spoof of her spoof**!

Because life rewards mediocrity. Why bother writing the masterpiece she clearly alludes to being able to write with the tell-tale fact that Ana has a degree in English Literature and goes to work at a publishers? Readers don’t want outstanding, they want so-so. James took the even bolder choice and made it above-averagely sh*t. Which is like being inversely good. The universe will fold, once again, around the whims of this masterstroke and reward it with untold riches.

Check out the 2600 something reviews on Amazon and you’ll see 69% of people gave it five stars. That is more than the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution would say qualifies as the average number but some of those people probably can’t read and skewed the data.

avIf you think about it, something aimed at the averagely and below-averagely discerning and intelligent customer in any industry is bound to satisfy and, therefore, sell. They’re easier to please and they’re half the market. Aim higher, well, those clever gits are too picky. The above average consumer is highly-trained, knowledgeable and fussy. You’re never going to please them, so why try?

That’s why more people study with Duolingo than any other language app, English File is still going strong, Breaking News English is loved by teachers, and the ELTons just awarded an innovation prize to a dictionary. Fast food and cheap wine don’t sell better than their higher quality counterparts just on affordability or so many rich countries wouldn’t have McDonalds. The most popular TV shows are  TOWIE and their ilk and Neighbours has celebrated its 30th anniversary for the same reason. Average sells. Popular science books reign over serious science. BuzzFeed listicles and quizzes are more popular than their longform essays (did you even realise they did them?). And the Hollywood blockbuster triumphs at the box office though I disagree that any of the films in this example are only average — he’s included Star Wars for Pete’s sake!

The message is clear. Be exceptional at your own risk, and likely to your detriment.

Put your most average foot forward and save your best for never.



** I, in fact, wrote a staggeringly brilliant parody of Fifty Shades but I made it too good and hence my Amazon royalty statement shows between 29-59p. It was, and is, the best thing I have ever written. But that was my foolish error. I should have held back. Like she did. Check it out for free here by clicking on the chapter links at the top. Or pay for it here. (But, really don’t pay, it’s too bloody good to do that!)




2 comments on “Why you shouldn’t be better than average

  1. Hana Tichá
    July 3, 2015

    A great post, Nicola. By the way, I’ve always suspected you were one of those child prodigies. Really. The way you write, which is clearly above average, is a proof to me. Anyway, it all comes down to whether you want to be brilliant or whether you want to sell. What’s your motivation? Can you have both? I believe you can. But once you start thinking that your brilliance is a hindrance, it eventually will be. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Nicola
      July 3, 2015

      Haha thanks! I was a good storywriter at junior school too – and then lost the ability for twenty years or something! I think for me the motivation is not a factor in the actual writing. I write plenty of things pretty much no-one has ever seen and I knew they wouldn’t. It’s about that feeling when things start writing themselves in my head and I can feel it and I have to get it down before I forget it. That feeling can and, hopefully, will fuel writing forever. But after that, once a thing is there, it’s about the being read. And mostly people read successful writing, meaning it’s probably been sold as sooner or later popular good stuff ends up sold. But so far, I have just realised to my utter horror, I have made more money from writing I think is average or worse than the stuff I know is good. Anyway, that’s a nice sentiment you end on, so let’s stay with that.

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2015 by in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , .
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