Paul Catmur: Career advice – stop trying to be ‘bloody exceptional’


“I know of no one more qualified to write about mediocrity.”
– Sir John Hegarty

These days I have much time for reflection on the series of long hours, lucky breaks, brick walls and the occasional breakthrough that tacked together are known as a career. In that time I have found myself drawn to the heretical conclusion that most people would be better off if they stopped trying to be so bloody brilliant and instead concentrated on making the most of being mediocre.

The sooner you come to terms with the possibility that it is a lack of ability, rather than just bad luck, that is holding you back from your rightful position as a Legend, the better. Stop beating yourself up, as well as those around you; learn to accept your limitations, and make the most of your mediocrity. It will not only make you happier, it will also help your career.

Despite your suspicions, my aim is not to insult you. Well, not entirely. I believe there are a number of ways that you can turn the limitations of your talents to your advantage and we’ll look at those in the coming weeks with a little help from sources such as Socrates, the movie Moneyball, and five years spent working in casinos.

The problem is not the aspiration to be brilliant, which is quite understandable; the problem is the remote likelihood of success and the personal issues resulting from not being as good as you keep telling yourself you should be. Not terrible, not brilliant, just mediocre. I’ve met several incredibly smart people who have made little of their talents, but also some exceedingly average ones who have moulded themselves into a great success. There are buckets of self-help books showing you how to be AMAZING! yet none that do much to help the 80 per cent of people who are just “OK”.

I expect by now some of you will be thinking, “that’s all very well, but obviously this mediocrity stuff doesn’t apply to me because I’m actually pretty bloody exceptional”. While that is possibly true, it is statistically unlikely. Most people are quite deluded about their abilities and think themselves way better than they actually are.

This phenomenon is known as Superiority Bias or sometimes as “The Lake Wobegon Effect” (the fictional town where all children are above average). A famous 1977 survey at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln found that 94 per cent of the faculty rated themselves as above average. Not the students, this was the teachers who had such a woeful understanding of their place in the world.

The issue is not just that people are not as good as they think, it’s also that they struggle to judge between good and bad work. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that those who are poor at performing a certain task are also poor at judging how well others perform that same task. Witness the junior staff who are utterly scathing about other people’s work, yet who are incapable of doing anything half as good themselves. (No doubt I was one of those.) There are also those irritating people who fight like a cornered mongoose to get through their idea which everyone else can see is clearly “meh” at best. (Me, again.)

A senior client of a large UK company once said to me “the trouble with you guys is that you’re always trying to give us 100 per cent. There’s really no need, we’d be more than happy with 80 per cent.” I believe he was saying what most clients are thinking, yet ashamed to admit. Yes, you’ll come across clients asking for “amazing, cut-through” work, but their definition of such is almost always very different from yours.

The sales director of a car company once hurried across a room to tell me in gushing tones how impressed he was with our most recent ad for them. My chest involuntarily swelled and I listened eagerly to hear what particular element of our wonderful press ad had most impressed him:The witty headline? The cutting-edge art direction? The iconoclastic theme? “It’s got three pictures of our cars in the same ad,” he said. “Best thing we’ve ever run.”

Rather than something “absolutely brilliant”, business clients are generally searching for something that will do a good job of selling their product and which they won’t be sacked for. Advertising people, on the other hand, want to create something which will make them famous and give them an excuse to be drunker than anyone else at an award show. Very, very rarely do these two desires actually coincide.

Books about the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos like to leave the reader with the impression that they could be just as successful and almost as rich if only they tried a little harder. What nonsense.

Only a delusional schoolboy watches a Lionel Messi video and thinks that with a little extra practice he will be playing in a World Cup final. Yes, one in a hundred million schoolboys will be right. But the chances of that schoolboy being you are also one in a hundred million. It’s time to play the percentages.

Next week we’ll look at a simple test that should give you an idea of just how mediocre you really are and what you should do about it.

• Paul Catmur worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia, including co-founding and selling his agency in Auckland. This is the first in a series of articles about converting your limitations into advantages. His advertising podcast is available at

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