In Praise of Mediocrity: An Excerpt From James Altucher’s Choose Yourself!

James Altucher, who has shown up on this blog a number of times — and who was having lunch with me when we saw a lady get a mouse in her salad — has a new book out. It’s called Choose Yourself! Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream. It is a classic Altucherian blend of insight, candor, and calamity. He has already made news with the book by letting Bitcoin users buy it ahead of the official release, and he is also giving people their money back if they read the whole book. Since he’s essentially giving the book away for free, we thought we might as well offer a free excerpt here. It is a chapter in praise of mediocrity. My favorite passage by far is this one:

The best ideas are when you take two older ideas that have nothing to do with each other, make them have sex with each other, and then build a business around the ugly bastard child that results. The child that was so ugly nobody else wanted to touch it. Look at Facebook: combine the internet with stalking. Amazing!

Enjoy!
 


 The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mediocre People

From Choose Yourself! Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream
By James Altucher

I’m pretty mediocre. I’m ashamed to admit it.  I’m not even being sarcastic or self-deprecating. I’ve never done anything that stands out as, “Whoa! This guy made it into outer space! Or … this guy has a bestselling novel! Or … if only Google had thought of this!” I’ve had some successes and some (well-documented) failures but never reached any of the goals I had initially set. Always slipped off along the way, off the yellow brick road, into the wilderness.

I’ve started a bunch of companies. Sold some. Failed at most. I’ve invested in a bunch of startups. Sold some. Failed at some, and the jury is still sequestered on a few others. I’ve written some books, most of which I no longer like. I can tell you overall, though, everything I have done has been distinguished by its mediocrity, its lack of a grand vision, and any success I’ve had can be just as much put in the luck basket as the effort basket.

That said, all people should be so lucky. We can’t all be grand visionaries. We can’t all be Picassos. We want to make our business, make our art, sell it, make some money, raise a family, and try to be happy. My feeling, based on my own experience, is that aiming for grandiosity is the fastest route to failure. For every Mark Zuckerberg there are 1,000 Jack Zuckermans. Who is Jack Zuckerman? I have no idea. That’s my point. If you are Jack Zuckerman and are reading this, I apologize. You aimed for the stars and missed. Your re-entry into the atmosphere involved a broken heat shield and you burned to a crisp by the time you hit the ocean. Now we have no idea who you are.

If you want to get rich, sell your company, have time for your hobbies, raise a halfway decent family (with mediocre children, etc.), and enjoy the sunset with your wife on occasion, here are some of my highly effective recommendations.

Procrastination

In between the time I wrote the last sentence and the time I wrote this one I played (and lost) a game of chess. My king and my queen got forked by a knight. But hey, that happens. Fork me once, shame on me, etc.

Procrastination is your body telling you you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing. When you procrastinate as an entrepreneur it could mean that you need a bit more time to think about what you are pitching a client. It could also mean you are doing work that is not your forte and that you are better off delegating. I find that many entrepreneurs are trying to do everything when it would be cheaper and more time-efficient to delegate, even if there are up front monetary costs associated with that. In my first business, it was like a light bulb went off in my head the first time I delegated a programming job to someone other than me. Why did I decide finally to delegate then at that particular point? I had a hot date. Which was infinitely better than me sweating all night on some stupid programming bug (thank you, Chet, for solving that issue).

Try to figure out why you are procrastinating. Maybe you need to brainstorm more to improve an idea. Maybe the idea is no good as is. Maybe you need to delegate. Maybe you need to learn more. Maybe you don’t enjoy what you are doing. Maybe you don’t like the client whose project you were just working on. Maybe you need to take a break. There’s only so many seconds in a row you can think about something before you need to take time off and rejuvenate the creative muscles. This is not for everyone. Great people can storm right through. Steve Jobs never needed to take a break. But I do.

Procrastination could also be a strong sign that you are a perfectionist. That you are filled with shame issues. This will block you from building and selling your business. Examine your procrastination from every side. It’s your body trying to tell you something. Listen to it.

Zero-Tasking

There’s a common myth that great people can multitask efficiently. This might be true but I can’t do it. I have statistical proof. I have a serious addiction. If you ever talk on the phone with me there’s almost a 100% chance I am simultaneously playing chess online. The phone rings and one hand reaches for the phone and the other hand reaches for the computer to initiate a one-minute game. Chess rankings are based on a statistically generated rating system. So I can compare easily how well I do when I’m on the phone compared with when I’m not on the phone. There is a three-standard-deviation difference. Imagine if I were talking on the phone and driving. Or responding to emails. It’s the same thing I’m assuming: phone calls cause a three-standard-deviation subtraction in intelligence. And that’s the basic multitasking we all do at some point or other.

So great people can multitask. Wonderful. But since, by definition, most of us are not great (99% of us are not in the top 1%), it’s much better to single-task. Just do one thing at a time. When you wash your hands, don’t try to brush your teeth. Hear the sound of the water, feel the water on your hands, scrub every part. Be clean. Focus on what you are doing.

Often, the successful mediocre entrepreneur should strive for excellence in zero-tasking. Do nothing. We always feel like we have to be “doing something” or we (or, I should say “I”) feel ashamed. Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet, to not think of anything at all. A very successful, self-made businessman once told me: “Never underestimate the power of a long, protracted silence.”

Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.

Not when we are rushing and panicking.

Failure

As far as I can tell, Larry Page has never failed. He went straight from graduate school to billions. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few others. But again, by definition, most of us are pretty mediocre. We can strive for greatness but we will never hit it. That means we will often fail. Not always fail. But often.

My last 16 out of 17 business attempts were failures. Ultimately, life is a sentence of failures, punctuated only by the briefest of successes. So the mediocre entrepreneur learns two things from failure — first he learns directly how to overcome that particular failure. He’s highly motivated to not repeat the same mistakes. Second, he learns how to deal with the psychology of failure. Mediocre entrepreneurs fail a lot. So they get this incredible skill of getting really good at dealing with failure. This translates to monetary success.

The mediocre entrepreneur understands that persistence is not the self-help cliché “Keep going until you hit the finish line!” It’s “Keep failing until you accidentally no longer fail.” That’s persistence.

Not Original

I’ve never come up with an original idea in my life. My first successful business was making web software, strategies, and websites for Fortune 500 companies. Not an original idea but at the time, in the ’90s, people were paying exorbitant multiples for such businesses. My successful investments all involved situations where I made sure the CEOs and other investors were smarter than me. One hundred percent of my zeroes as an angel investor were situations where I thought I was smart. I wasn’t. I’m mediocre.

The best ideas are when you take two older ideas that have nothing to do with each other, make them have sex with each other, and then build a business around the ugly bastard child that results. The child that was so ugly nobody else wanted to touch it. Look at Facebook: combine the internet with stalking. Amazing!

And, by the way, it was about the fifth attempt at such a social network.  Twitter: combine internet with antiquated SMS protocols. Ugly! But it works. Ebay: combine e-commerce with auctions. The song “I’ll Be There”: combine Mariah Carey with Michael Jackson. If Justin Bieber sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” it would be a huge hit. I might even listen to it.

Poor Networking

I’m that guy. You know the one at the party that doesn’t talk to anyone and stands in the corner. I never go to tech meetups. I usually say no to very nice networking dinner invitations. I like to stay home and read. When I was running businesses I was often too shy to talk to my employees. I would call my secretary from downstairs and ask if the hallway was clear, then ask her to unlock my door and I’d hurry upstairs and lock the door behind me. That particular company failed disastrously.

But many people network too much. Entrepreneurship is hard enough. It’s 20 hours a day of managing employees, customers, meetings, and product development. And the buck stops here sort of thing. And then what are you going to do? Network all night? Save that for the great entrepreneurs. Or the ones who are about to fail. The mediocre entrepreneur works his 20 hours, then relaxes when he can. It’s tough to make money. Not a party.

Do Anything to Get a “Yes”

Here’s a negotiation I did. I was starting stockpickr.com and meeting with the CEO of thestreet.com. He wanted his company to have a percentage of stockpickr.com and in exchange he would fill up all of our ad inventory. I was excited to do the deal. I said, “Okay, I was thinking you would get 10% of the company.” He laughed and said, “No, 50 percent.” He didn’t even say “We would like 50 percent.” He just said, “50 percent.” I then used all my negotiating skills and came up with a reply: “Okay — deal.”

I’m a salesman. I like people to say yes to me. I feel insecure when they so “no” or, even worse, if they don’t like me. When I started a company doing websites we were pitching to do “miramax.com.” I said, “Fifty thousand dollars? They said, “No more than $1,000, and that’s a stretch.” I used my usual technique: “Deal!”

But the end results: in one case, thestreet.com had a significant financial stake so that gave them more psychological stake. And for my first business, Miramax was now on my client list. That’s why Con Edison had to pay a lot more. Often, the secret that poor negotiators keep is that we get more deals done. I get the occasional loss leader, and then ultimately the big fish gets reeled in if I get enough people to say “yes.” It’s like asking every girl on the street to have sex with you. One out of 100 will say “yes.” In my case it might be one out of a million but you get the idea. 

Poor Judge of People

The mediocre entrepreneur doesn’t “blink” in the Malcolm Gladwell sense. In Gladwell’s book he often talks about people who can form snap correct judgments in two or three seconds. My initial judgment when I meet or even see people is this: I hate you.

And then I veer from that to too trusting. Finally, after I bounce back and forth, and through much trial and error, I end up somewhere in the middle. I also tend to drop people I can’t trust very quickly. I think the great entrepreneur can make snap judgments and be very successful with it. But that doesn’t work for most people.

At this point, when I meet someone, I make sure I specifically don’t trust my first instincts. I get to know people more. I get to understand what their motivations are. I try to sympathize with whatever their position is. I listen to them. I try not to argue or gossip about them before I know anything. I spend a lot more time getting to know the people who I want to bring closer. I have to do this because I’m mediocre and I’m a lot more at risk of bringing the wrong people into my circle.

So by the time I’ve decided to be close to someone — a client, an employee, an acquirer, an acquiree, a wife, etc. — I’ve already done a lot of the thinking about them. This means I can’t waste time thinking about other things, like how to put a rocket ship on Jupiter. But overall it’s worked.


“I thought being mediocre is supposed to be bad?” one might think. Shouldn’t we strive for greatness? And the answer is: “Of course we should! But let’s not forget that 9 out of 10 motorists think they are ‘above-average drivers.’” People overestimate themselves. Don’t let overestimation get in the way of becoming fabulously rich, or at least successful enough that you can have your freedom, feed your family, and enjoy other things in life.

Being mediocre doesn’t mean you won’t change the world. It means being honest with yourself and the people around you. And being honest at every level is really the most effective habit of all if you want to have massive success.

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  1. crquack says:

    I have disagreed with Mr. Altucher in the past on many occasions but this time he may be onto something :-)

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  2. JS says:

    Nice article, except 9 out of 10 motorists can be above average!

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    • AS says:

      Not sure i agree… 9 of 10 motorists can have fewer than the average number of accidents (assuming the remaining 10% have more than half the total accidents), but when you are asking someone if they are an above average driver, mathematically speaking you are really asking if they are above the median driver – that is they would say that the average driver has a roughly equal number of bad drivers and good drivers below and above him, and is in a sense in the middle.

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      • JS says:

        ” mathematically speaking you are really asking if they are above the median driver” – gibberish

        “Mathematically speaking”, average implies mean, not median. ergo, above average implies above mean.

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  3. Thomas says:

    Steve Jobs actually took long breaks … He talked about how it is really necessary. He took a lot of vacations in Hawaii.

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    • mukatsuku says:

      And as for Larry Page, he didn’t go straight from grad school to billions. At one point he hid in a kitchen and said “The site is down. It’s all gone horribly awry.”

      Also he tried to sell Google to Yahoo for $1 million.

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  4. AaronS says:

    Altucher calls it mediocrity. I call it “authenticity.” If you will be who you really are–and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve who you are–you will find that, happily, God has made it that you can be very content with what you can do.

    When I took my degree in philosophy, I soon realized that perhaps I should have taken my degree in business, or at least in some field that was more marketable. Yet today, decades later, I look back and am glad that I was privileged to take those many courses in a field that I loved. So I had to start in relatively entry level positions at each stage of my career–so what? I was able to work my way up here and there, burnish my resume, and to have “enough.” No, I never have been rich, but I’ve always had “enough.”

    Moreover, I did it being true to my values…and just being ME. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, I trust that at the end of life, I will not have lost my panache! There is something soul-satisfying about doing things your way. Thanks, Mr. Altucher, for reminding us.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  5. Alexander D. Dunhill says:

    This was an excellent article! While James referred to himself throughout the entire publication as being mediocre, it takes an intelligent person to look at this situation from this perspective.

    Great lesson!

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  6. tina says:

    I can’t wait to get this book, I have so many idea’s but not sure where to begin
    working from home and having my own business is my dream and yes I am medicre too

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  7. sand says:

    i generally agree with most things you say but i think most people underestimate themselves & that keeps them going to school etc. if they truly believed in themselves they would take the business risk & start out on their own. i like your honesty & your approach to modern day business.

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