Forget the fear of failure: What I really fear is being mediocre

Lady in contemplation of her fear pyramid.

Fears are not all created equal. There is a hierarchy.

I think of every individual having his or her own Pyramid of Fear. (Which sounds like a Survivor challenge or a carnival ride, but never mind that.) Think: One singular Ultimate Nightmare at the top—say, Death; followed by an assortment of Major Terrors (i.e. Heights, Spiders, Driving in England); and finally, at the base, a virtual cornucopia of Slight But Persistent Sources of Distress, such as Fancy Restaurant Meals Featuring Obscure Organ Meats and the Kardashians.

For me, very close to the top of the pyramid you would find Fear of Mediocrity. Its cousin, Fear of Failure, gets more press, and certainly I’m not immune to that either. But mediocrity has always seemed more menacing to me—perhaps because it’s quieter, less dynamic, more, well, average. As awful as failure could be in the moment, I could always transform them later into mirthful anecdotes: “Talk about a klutz—did I ever tell you about the time I stapled my finger twice in one day?” “Wow, I bombed the math SAT so badly that I couldn’t have even qualified for a football scholarship.” And in so doing they became a part of my personal mythology. But literally no one is intrigued by experiences that fall into the muddy middle: The time you acquitted yourself just fine at yoga? The fact that you can cook decently, if nothing to write home about? There is no cocktail party so dismal that you can get away with these stories.

The era when average was awesome.
The era when average was awesome.

No doubt that’s why I’ve always gone out of my way to be seen as something other than mediocre. A few examples:

  • At the age of 11, I went on a cross-country flight carrying only the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, despite the fact I couldn’t understand a word of it, in the hopes that the flight attendant could compliment my impressive reading material.
  • At summer camp in middle school, concerned about how weakly I did in the sporty activities everyone else seemed to excel in, I memorized a monologue from Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, donned a burlap sack, chained myself to a corner of the mess hall and performed this opus on skit night. Even the risk of seeming weird or pretentious paled with the possibility of seeming run-of-the-mill.
  • I spent nearly every day during my last year of high school visiting our chorus teacher, a pompous twit, attempting to curry favor with him by learning an array of unnecessary vocal music, all so that I would win the Senior Soloist award at the end of the year. The grand prize attached to this award? The honor of singing the school song, an overwrought dirge, at graduation ceremonies while (and this is true) a small plane with a banner addressed to the assistant principal that read FUCK YOU flew in a continuous loop overhead. This honor also earned me a lifelong earworm (See it’s happening right now? “Fair Orange, we thy loyal ones, where ‘ere in life our journey runs…” Dear Lord, make it stop.)
  • At the DMV, I have rounded up my height from 5’4” to 5’5”, all so that I could tell myself (because no one else cares) that my height is above average.

So it was no small thing to do what I did several weeks ago: I started a new career at a nonprofit. In the course of my days now, I sit in meetings where I understand approximately 35% of what is being said, jargon of various sorts whizzing past my head; This is by no means unusual, of course. My new boss knows I am green at this particular field. Like any new position, a learning curve is expected. It’s normal. Typical. Average!

And perhaps you see where this is going: That is just why it’s been so challenging—I am used to feeling on top of my game; not striving for adequacy. It’s been a long time (probably since 10th grade) since I just sat, nearly struck dumb, thinking to myself, Just say something. Say something that sounds like ANYTHING. (Since this change, it has occurred to me how tone-deaf our public dialogue is on the retraining of middle-aged workers. Politicians always say that 50- and 60-something people should just go learn new professions. Just! As though it’s easy. Not terrifying, or humbling.)

Everyday, I get a lump in my stomach before I walk into work, cowed by the newness and sheepish about being a novice again on some level. No doubt that’s why I didn’t try this change sooner; keeping to the status quo is always easier. But it can feel bracing, invigorating even, to do something new, to be expected to learn all over again. At least that’s what I tell myself as I sit there, waiting for the words to come in the meetings, and until the moments arise when I feel like a full participant in my workday again.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1967, when people were afraid their penises had been stolen

imgresAnd you thought eating pork only ratcheted up your cholesterol levels.

In 1967, the men of Singapore were seized with terror that their love of noshing swine products was causing a condition called koro, which is literally defined as an individual’s “overpowering belief that his or her genitalia are retracting and will disappear.” (Although let’s be honest: Men tend to be juuuust a little more anxious about the relative size of their nether regions.)

According to Scott Mendelson, the author of The Great Singapore Penis Panic (a.k.a. The Best Book Title Ever), a newspaper article stating that some men had contracted koro from eating pork from animals that had been vaccinated with anti-swine-fever meds set off the panic. (Hey, nobody tell Jenny McCarthy about this.) At one point, as many as 500 men were certain their penises had disappeared wholly or partially. They remained convinced until an aggressive public health campaign by the government urged them to believe otherwise. Or until they looked down. Either way, the situation eventually abated.

Singaporean men didn’t invent this mass hysteria on their own. It actually dates way back. In 400 B.C., according to, “the condition was known in Chinese medicine as ‘suo-yang,’ which translates roughly to ‘Bye for now, penis. Hope to see you again soon.’ In his 1834 compendium of remedies, Pao Sian-Ow recommends several methods of treatment for suo-yang, including taking warm alcoholic drinks and rubbing the affected crotch with the ashes of burnt female undergarments.” And during the Middle Ages, the Malleus Maleficarum (the 250px-Malleusguidebook that helped Inquisitors put the screws to alleged witches), warned of a koro-like condition, in which “witches can take away the male organ not indeed by actually disspoiling the human body of it. but by concealing it with some glamour.”

But lest you think koro went out with other pre-1970s fads, like fallout shelters and witch-burning, it’s still around. Outbreaks of koro have occurred in just the last 10 years in West and Central Africa, sometimes leading to tragedy when someone is accused of being a black-magic practitioner-come-penis thief and gets (literally) strung up in the town square. And yes, while it’s unlikely this specific malady will befall American men en masse, we’re certainly no stranger to believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Once again, I refer you to Jenny McCarthy.