Gregory Peck? Jaime Escalante? Madonna Louise Ciccone? Jeff Smith? Robert Downey Jr.? Chet Atkins?
Dear Quote Investigator: The fear of being mediocre activates a compulsion to achieve fame and excellence for some artists, performers, and educators. Would you please explore the people who expressed this notion?
Quote Investigator: The desire to avoid mediocrity is present in many people who have remained unsung. A 1919 article in “Harper’s Magazine” contained the following counter-intuitive cautionary words. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The fear of mediocrity. The fear of commonplace. We are so afraid of being ordinary that it keeps us from being extraordinary; so afraid of being ridiculous that we dare not risk sublimity.
In 1958 Academy-Award-winning movie star Gregory Peck was asked about his fears: 2
“I don’t have much time to speculate on what I’m afraid of,” he remarked, “but I suppose the thing I fear most is being mediocre. I like to excel.”
“I like to make the most out of life and get the most out of it.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A book titled “Notable Latino Americans” included a chapter on the math teacher Jaime Escalante who inspired the movie “Stand and Deliver”. Before Escalante left his home country of Bolivia to work in the United States in 1964 he encouraged his students by telling them to avoid mediocrity: 3
In his classes Escalante not only energized them and cajoled them through problems, methods, and concepts but used “fear”—the fear of being mediocre—as a motivating tool. He frequently told them, “Lo mediocre no sirve” (“Mediocrity is worthless”).
In 1983 a student named Jeff Smith at Pebblebrook High School in Georgia described his biggest fear: 4
Jeff, who dreams of being a motion picture star and a guest on the Johnny Carson show, said that to be a star, one has to suffer. He confided that he was not a good sufferer, so he would go to college and study applied physics.
“My biggest fear in life is the fear of being mediocre,” Jeff said. “If I became a face in the crowd, I would quit.”
In 1988 the emerging movie star Robert Downey Jr. submitted to an interview with photographer Karen Hardy Bystedt, and he discussed his motivations: 5
Mediocrity is my biggest fear. I’m not afraid of total failure, because I don’t think that will happen. I’m not afraid of success, because that beats the hell out of failure. lt’s being in the middle that scares me.
In 1991 a profile of prominent singer-songwriter Madonna Louise Ciccone appeared in “Vanity Fair” magazine. She discussed her recurring episodes of feeling inadequate: 6
I’m always struggling with that fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. And I find a way to get myself out of that. Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me.
In 1992 acclaimed guitarist and country music star Chet Atkins mentioned his desire to avoid mediocrity: 7
“People wanna be surprised all the time,” says Atkins, “so it’s a constant battle to try to keep from being mediocre and keep out the conformity. Because once you start becoming predictable, people aren’t interested anymore.”
In 1996 Chet Atkins received credit for an instance of the saying within a piece about trivia printed in the television listings section of multiple newspapers: 8
“Everything I’ve ever done was out of a fear of being mediocre,” says guitarist Chet Atkins.
In conclusion, the fear of being mediocre has driven the actions of the famous and the obscure. The motivations of Gregory Peck fit this template as he explained in 1958. Madonna, Robert Downey Jr., Chet Atkins and others have expressed a similar notion more recently.
Image Notes: Picture of Madonna in Melbourne during 2016 Rebel Heart tour. author: chrisweger; accessed via Wikimedia Commons; Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0. Publicity photo of Gregory Peck circa 1944; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of Robert Downey, Jr.; creator Gage Skidmore; accessed via Flickr; Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0.
(Great thanks to researcher Mardy Grothe who asked about this saying and its attribution to Chet Atkins. Special thanks to the Interlibrary Loan system and to the librarians in Ponte Vedra and St Augustine, Florida.)
- 1919 May, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 138, A Word for Hypocrisy by Fleta Campbell Springer, Start Page 786, Quote Page 786, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1958 August 22, Plainfield Courier-News, Meet Gregory Peck: His Big Fear Is Mediocrity by Hal Boyle (Associated Press), Quote Page 16, Column 2, Bridgewater, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1997, Notable Latino Americans: A Biographical Dictionary by Matt S. Meier with Conchita Franco Serri and Richard A. Garcia, Chapter: Jaime Escalante (Bolivian American Teacher), Start Page 125, Quote Page 126, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983 November 3, The Atlanta Constitution, Thrill of theater inspires Pebblebrook students by Julie K. Miller (Staff Writer), Quote Page 5F, Column 3, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1996 Copyright, Before They Were Famous: In Their Own Words by Karen Hardy Bystedt, (Collection of Interviews), Interview with Robert Downey Jr., Date: January 1988, Start Page 108, Quote Page 113, General Publishing Group Inc., Santa Monica, California. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1991 April, Vanity Fair, The Misfit by Lynn Hirschberg (Profile of Madonna Louise Ciccone), Start Page 158, Quote Page 198, Column 1, Conde Nast Publications, New York. (Verified with photocopies) ↩
- 1992 March 13, Knoxville News Sentinel, Section: Living, Chet Atkins Still Tries To Surprise People by Wayne Bledsoe (News-Sentinel Entertainment Writer), Quote Page B1, Knoxville, Tennessee. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1996 August 3, The World, Section: TV Times, Trivia, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Coos Bay, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩