The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break


After being in this sector for over a decade, I can say that nonprofit professionals are some of the most awesome people on earth. We are so smart, talented, dedicated, passionate, caring, humble, witty, cool, and hilarious. Also, we are really good-looking and are great dressers. Let’s see someone from the corporate sector rock that $6.99 button-down shirt from Ross, Dress for Less (originally $13.99).

But we are burning out, you guys. Our natural good looks are obscured by stress-induced wrinkles, grey hair, and maybe one eye that twitches uncontrollably during staff meetings. The work never stops, our organizations are understaffed, and people’s lives depend on our actions and decisions. We work in the evenings and on the weekends, skip vacations, and when we’re on vacation we check our emails because we know if we ignore them, they will start multiplying like hipsters. It is a brutal cycle that leads to many of us leaving the sector to make jewelry that are then sold at farmer’s markets. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy, despite the fact that the world could use more necklaces made out of beach glass and soda can tabs.

There are plenty of articles about self-care, with lots of tips, some that are useful—“say no to crap more often”—and some that border on ridiculous—“Exercise regularly.” (See NWB’s “7 self-care tips for nonprofit staff”)

But these tips only deal with the symptoms of burnout, and not the root causes of them. I think the causes are much more profound, and are deeply ingrained in the psychology of the Nonprofit Warrior. We have unconscious and deeply-held beliefs that are undermining our very health and sanity. These in include:

    • The Martyr Complex: We in nonprofit must suffer, for how can we be comfortable when the people we help are suffering so much? (See “Nonprofits: We must break out of the scrappiness cycle”)
    • The Myth of Indispensability: Our organization, nay, the world, shall collapse if we personally are not there, constantly keeping watch. (Damn you, Smokey the Bear, with your high-pressure mantra of “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”)
    • The Drive for Perfection: We must constantly sharpen our skills and do things better, because the work is complex and mistakes have serious consequences

We’ll talk about the Martyr Complex and the Myth of Indispensability in future posts. Today, I want to address this drive toward perfection. Recently, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, because there is so much to do at my new job, and I can’t learn or do things fast enough. All of us are dealing with the ruthless forces of inequity and injustice, and they are tough and bitter enemies. And with the sometimes nebulous nature of our work, there’s just a lot of stuff we need to learn all the time. This makes the work interesting, but also exhausting. So many of us feel crappy because we don’t feel equipped to handle everything. 

Every day, there is a workshop or a webinar or an article that we should read. There’s a lot to learn. Whenever I attend a conference, I get anxiety over which workshops I should attend, since they usually all seem like stuff I should know: “How to build a better board,” “Do mailing campaigns better,” “Effective strategies for coaching your team,” “Your financial reports suck, and what to do about it,” “Strategic thinking versus Strategic planning,” “Planned giving,” “Crowdfunding, the next great fad,” “How to harness synergy to effectively shift the paradigm for collective impact,” etc.

At some point, though, we need to tell ourselves, “Dude, I am average at some stuff, and it’s OK.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And yet we try to hide our weaknesses as if they were shameful secrets. Who among us has not trained ourselves to answer that age-old job interview question “What are your strengths and weaknesses” by turning our negatives into positives? “My weakness is that I work too much, and also the quality of my work is so high that it oftentimes causes coworkers to be jealous, which sometimes leads to office-wide rioting.”

It is natural that all of us are good at some things, are average at some things, and suck at some things. And that’s OK. I met an amazing ED—legendary, really—and recently found out that he types with two fingers. He manages to get stuff done and is highly respected. 

Mediocrity has gotten a really bad rap. Heck, by writing this post, I may have just ended my political career before it’s even started. (“My opponent is known for encouraging people to be mediocre; and he has shown no respect to the hardworking citizen hipsters of our great Nation.”) But the word “mediocre” comes from Latin medius meaning “middle” and ocris meaning “stony mountain.” So mediocre means to be at the mid-level height on a mountain. With so many mountains to climb, why can’t we just stand at midlevel at a couple of them and not feel like garbage?

So, today, let us all embrace the things for which we are average. Today, let us rejoice in our own imperfections. Let us name and proclaim without shame the things we are not great at.

Hi, my name is Vu, and I pretty much suck at social media. I also have mediocre time management and will waste entire hours reading Google News right in the middle of doing other tasks. I don’t spend enough time with my board. My desk is a mess. I lose receipts frequently and scramble trying to find them. I hoard post-its. I eat too much junk food for lunch. I am average at technological stuff. Sometimes I don’t comb my hair. I am not all that good with individual donor cultivation; I am average at asking for money. I pick at my face when I’m nervous or bored. I can be impatient, sarcastic, and bossy under pressure.

And let us acknowledge the things that all of us in the field are average at, and let us accept them:

    • Accept that we may not always be able to keep up with emails
    • Accept that there’s way more stuff than we can possibly do on any given day
    • Accept that there are things we could certainly have done better
    • Accept that there are many relationships that we just can’t tend to as much as they deserve
    • Accept that we screw up from time to time

We can take vacations and try hot yoga (see “The Downward-Facing Budget and other nonprofit yoga positions”), but until we accept imperfections in ourselves and in others, we will continue to burn out. And that is not good for our sector and for the people we serve.

It takes courage and humility to accept our own mediocrity. To accept that we’re mediocre at some things does not mean we are mediocre as a person. Don’t be mediocre at everything. But be OK with being mediocre at some stuff. Remember, we nonprofit professionals are making the world better. That means we’re unicorns (See “Nonprofit professionals, you are each a unicorn“). We’re rare. We have to take better care of our own sanity. Here, I wrote this mantra below for all of us to start and end our day with. Share it with your stressed-out nonprofit friends.

The Nonprofit Unicorn’s Mantra

“I am a nonprofit unicorn. I try each day to make the world better. I am good at some stuff, and I suck at some stuff, and that’s OK. There’s way more crap than I can possibly do on any given day. On some days I am more productive than on other days, and that’s OK. I know sometimes there are things that I certainly could have done better. I know that I can’t make everyone happy or spend as much time as I could on everyone. I know there’s a bunch of crap I don’t know. Sometimes I make mistakes, and that’s OK. I will try my best to learn and to improve, but I’ll also give myself a break. I will be as thoughtful and understanding with myself as I am with my coworkers and community members. I am an awesome and sexy nonprofit unicorn.”

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33 thoughts on “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break

  1. Sheena

    What an interesting perspective! We often have too much on our plate and can’t pressure ourselves to be perfect at it all. What has helped me is intentionally taking time to do things I enjoy or things I am good at (outside of work). So I’m not freaking out as much about work things. And I have a better mindset and perspective when I’m back at the office. Because I know there is life outside me and my work computer!

    1. Vu Le

      Great point, Sheena. I think our field would be better and more effective if all of us spend more time with our families and doing things we enjoy.

  2. JonStahl

    Love this, Vu! One corollary is that it’s only when we recognize our strengths and “mediocrities” that we can actually be intentional about surrounding ourselves with people with complimentary talents so that our organizations can be awesome. There’s some sort of My Little Pony metaphor hidden here, but it is too early in the morning for me to find it.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Jon. That’s a great point. Supporting each other with complementary skills. Sounds like something one of the Ponies would say.

  3. Javier Womeldorff

    Mediocre never sounded worse after Richard Sherman used it on national television. Starting to sound a little better now. Thanks for the reality check!

  4. Leah

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Says the woman in the sharp dress from Ross for only $8.99 (originally $24.99).

  5. Lorraine Thomas

    The mantra is going up over my desk. Here’s something you’re awesome at, Vu: making others in your field believe they are sexy non-profit unicorns.

  6. Dana Arviso

    THANK YOU for saying what I’ve been slowly discovering over my three year tenure as an ED! And yes, the quest for perfection is a recipe for major stress and burn-out.

  7. Marcie Fritz-Reichenbacher

    Great article and very timely after after a busy day trying to harness my super powers to tackle an impossibly long to do list. My mom used to say “dare to be average”. Thanks for the blog therapy 🙂

    1. Vu Le

      I think your mom is on to something, Marcie. It’s not that we should revel in averageness. It’s that it’s OK to be average at some things, and be kick-ass at other things. If we try to be kick-ass at everything, we end up just kicking our own asses.

  8. BarbChamberlain

    This reminds me of an article I would find and cite if I were going to be excellent. It said we should stop focusing on the search for “best” practices and settle for “good enough” practices, which are often all that are really needed.

    I plan to enlarge and frame “accept that we are not always going to be able to keep up with emails.” I can then send a picture of that attached to a permanent auto reply message.

    1. Vu Le

      “Good enough” practices? That’s awesome! The email thing is a nightmare. The more responsive and competent we are, the more emails we get. The solution is to be incompetent and unresponsive.

  9. Amy Hanauer

    Does this mean I can ban the phrase “up your game” from our office? My game is up enough. I’m gonna down it. Or at least down some whiskey while I up it.

    1. Vu Le

      Amy, I think it’s OK to “up your game” from time to time. But we can’t just constantly try to up every game all the time without killing ourselves. I like your approach of downing some whiskey while upping the game.

  10. Natalia Fior

    so true! “Good enough” really is the best we can do sometimes — especially when juggling 10 things at once and each one has a fast-approaching deadline. Sometimes its better to just get things done than worry too much about perfection.

    1. Vu Le

      Yeah, that balance is very important. I know there are very thoughtful people who take a lot of time to plan (search lion-turtle on this blog), and they are important. But sometimes we just need to make some quick decisions and learn as we go and be OK with 10 things with B results rather than 2 things with A results. I’ve known some perfectionists who get nervous breakdowns and then get nothing done.

  11. Marsha Miles

    When I faced burnout I was given a great book called “The joy of burnout” it got my ass in gear and I moved on to a part time fundraising role and also led me to set up a consultancy business which is going well, being CEO of a NFP is not all great, PS wish there was a blog like this in the UK, do you know of any?

    1. Vu Le

      Marsha, congrats on the consultancy business. No, I don’t know of any blog like this in the UK. How about this, I’ll start using more British slang and spellings in the blog, and Bob will be both of our uncle?

      1. Marsha Miles

        Thanks Vu, sounds like a good deal! I am thinking of starting a UK blog similar to yours but want to ensure I have enough content I will keep watching your site with interest!

  12. Hamid Ahmed Khan

    Haha, this made my day! Brilliantly written. As an about-to-graduate-MBA, the part about the interviews really struck a chord!

  13. Leslie Clay

    Timely read this morning as I was feeling guilty because rather than work over the weekend I chose to do the laundry, run errands, go to church, visit with my parents and watch a couple of movies. Sigh…a development director’s work is never done.

  14. Sean Hale

    This one really resonates with me, Vu. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’ve become acutely aware of how perfectionism can lead us to make choices that are penny wise and pound foolish. While we definitely want an A+++ when it comes to some things like airline safety, so many other things are good enough at a B or C level. When we free ourselves from the tyranny of seeking an A+ on everything, we can accomplish so much more. That’s because the time investment to get something from B level to A+ level is immense: you can often accomplish 5 or 10 things at B level in the time it takes to get one thing to an A+. Thank you!

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