Break free from mediocrity

The discipline to push for higher standards will buy you freedom on several axes.

Image of a chain
Credits Aida L

In a recent post, David Heinemeier Hansson argues that entrenched mediocrity is the reason many companies perish.

It’s rarely the terrible decisions, processes, or even people that’ll sink your organization.
It’s the accumulation and inertia of the mediocre ones.

One substandard choice, in isolation, is mostly harmless. But, DHH explains, when mediocre decisions pile up, the result is an organization no longer able to perform at its best. It’s a case of death by a thousand cuts.

Technical debt is a clear example of the danger of settling for mediocrity. For software developers, this is the practice of intentionally writing code you know to be flawed and substandard in the interest of shipping faster. The idea is to think of tech debt as real debt, something you have to pay back, that is, rewrite the code properly, and the sooner, the better.

Alas, tech debt is seldom paid back. Over time, a codebase that was once easy to navigate and change bankrupts into a mess of spaghetti code where any change takes ages to implement.

Mediocrity happens because it’s easier to choose the path of least resistance and because there is little to pay in the moment. The actual cost manifests only in the long run.

The insidious nature of mediocre decisions is why we need to push back against them as much as possible. As David puts it:

Whenever I find myself looking at a coward in the mirror, I remind myself:
Easy choices, hard life.
Hard choices, easy life.
Make the hard choices.
Even when it’s possible to punt.
The inertia of mediocrity will not break unless you break it.

Navy SEAL Jocko Willink offers a different framing for the same concept: Discipline equals freedom.

The discipline to expend energy into pushing back against mediocrity will generate a better working environment, which in turn gives everyone freedom on several axes.

  • Push against mediocre code, and your development speed won’t slow down drastically over time.
  • Push against vague specifications, and you won’t have to keep making changes in flight.
  • Push against meetings with no agendas, and you won’t waste time on meetings that should have been emails.
  • Push against hiring people that don’t raise the team’s quality bar in any meaningful way, and you won’t find yourself with an underperforming team six months from now.

Fighting the pull of mediocrity requires constant vigilance. Your guard needs to be up all the time.

Luckily, this doesn’t have to be a solitary battle. The best way to maintain high standards is to enlist others to fight with you.

Whether it’s a teammate pointing out you took an implementation shortcut or a friend that doesn’t let you off the hook on your commitment to hitting the gym, leaning on your network is guaranteed to help you in your goals.

Asking for help can be tough, but remember: Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

One response to “Break free from mediocrity”

  1. […] Darwin could have ignored his own criticism, that cold shudder when considering how the eye seemed to defy the theory of evolution by natural selection and random variation. But that is not the way of the scientist, and is not the way of those who are committed to escape the pull of mediocrity. […]