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In Praise of Mediocrity

Where Brian Williams went wrong

Steve Chapman

I rise today to speak in praise of an underappreciated attribute: mediocrity.

Oh, I can hear the comments already: “Who better to do it?” “Finally, something you’re an expert on.” “You should only hope to achieve mediocrity!” But I will not be deterred.

As kids, we are always told to admire those who are the best at anything and to strive to attain the highest level in whatever we do. But a flurry of scandals suggest the world would be better off if more people would settle for being adequate.

Brian Williams was more than adequate at the only things required of him: looking good in a suit and reading the news without belching. Plenty of local anchors have enjoyed decades of minor celebrity and outsized pay with these capabilities alone. Williams had achieved national celebrity.

But he was not content with being the star of the No. 1-rated TV newscast in America, or with someday retiring as a legend in the category of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. No, he had to break out of the sober-sided anchorman persona in hopes of becoming a rock star.

It’s fairly easy to enthrall an audience with stories if you are not bound by the requirement that the stories be true. You’d certainly love hearing about the time I rappelled down Mt. Rushmore to rescue Taylor Swift from a grizzly bear and then amused her with my a cappella rendition of “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

Kissing the Blarney stone is no crime if you’re an ordinary jamoke who spins his colorful anecdotes at the corner bar. But when your central function is giving people factual information about important events, fanciful reminiscing is bound to eventually become a serious liability.

Williams had been in war zones, and when you have been in war zones, audiences may be mildly disappointed to hear about the time you dozed off in a Chinook helicopter and landed uneventfully. They are more likely to listen raptly if you tell them what it was like when your aircraft was hit by enemy rockets in a close brush with fiery death.

A show of airy nonchalance is a useful addition. Marveling at his own cool under fire, Williams told an interviewer, “I don’t know where that unbridled confidence comes from.”

I have made it my business whenever possible to stay a healthy distance from combat theaters—half a planet away is my sweet spot—so I can’t speak to how the terrors of war can distort memory. Williams, however, had no immediate trouble keeping his facts straight. It’s just that as the story got told over and over, it insisted on getting bigger, until it popped in his face.

Gradual expansion was also the sin of the adults in charge of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League. They could have had a good squad made up of players residing within the league’s geographic boundaries. But good wasn’t good enough. They had the ingenious idea of adding chunks of neighboring territory to gain access to an even bigger pool of young stars.

Ingenious, but illegal under the rules of Little League. If the organization were to ignore this sort of encroachment, pretty soon Missouri would become, for purposes of youth baseball, western Illinois or even north Texas.

After winning the national tournament and advancing to the world championship game, the Jackie Robinson kids found themselves the object of local and national attention. But instead of being able to enjoy their on-the-field triumph, they have been stripped of their U.S. title. Instead of being able to grow up, and old, bragging about their youthful heroics, they will be dogged by an air of disrepute that was not their doing.

All this happened because the people in charge weren’t satisfied with making the full use of the athletic talent available to them. Like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, they had to look for an illicit boost that would propel them from one level to the next and next.

This is where a due respect for mediocrity would have come in handy. It’s nice to be excellent, superb or Greatest of All Time. But some people—most people—can give everything they have in developing every talent to the fullest and find the results are not the least bit special.

There’s no disgrace in accepting your limits. Rejecting them is what gets you in trouble. That’s why we call them limits.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

I have always appreciated life as a participation sport, far happier playing mediocre trombone, baseball, tennis and all other activities to watching EXPERTS do stuff. I also have a highly-developed sense of honor, finding its value to exceed any short-term reward that could be gained from telling of tall tales or cheating my way to a shallow victory. – Ted