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Business Unplugged™
This blog features Carol Roth's tough love on business and entrepreneurship, as well as insights from Carol's community of contributors.

Do You Fear Success or Failure? Maybe You Should Fear Mediocrity.

Written By: Carol Roth | 26 Comments
Why being average is the most frightening outcome of all.

Earlier this year, I attended the amazing mastermind conference known as SOBCon and one of the topics we discussed was how fear affected our businesses.

The panel discussed how two types of fears can hold us back.  Some of us fear failure- this is no surprise, our entire school system is built upon getting ostracized for trying something and it not working out perfectly.  People who fear failure just don’t try at all.

Then, there are a whole other group of people who fear success.  They are not sure if they are ready to step up to the plate when success stares them in the face, so they sabotage their efforts.

When our group came to discuss this topic vis-à-vis our own businesses, I had a different answer altogether.  I wasn’t afraid of success OR failure.  I was afraid of mediocrity.  And here’s why you should be too.

Being mediocre, average or in the middle is the worst of all outcomes.  It signals that we aren’t trying hard enough.  If you fail, you should go down in flames (like my friend Jason Seiden says, “Fail Spectacularly”).  You might as well go big or go home.  Being average is almost like being invisible.  Why do you think Jan Brady had so many issues with Marsha, Marsha, Marsha?

Think about what’s happening in your local stores or at the mall.  The middle is becoming less and less relevant.  Premium brands which deliver luxury and status at the high end of the spectrum have their raving fans.  Private label and value brands that deliver more for less are continually gaining in popularity.  This is what’s commanding attention and shelf space.  The whole slew of other “average” choices are becoming obsolete and will continually have a harder time competing.

Forget about being decent or good enough.  In an era where we have more choices than we could ever want or need, mediocrity is a death sentence.  If you are going to fail, then go down in a major way. I am not saying bet the farm or gamble recklessly with your finances, but rather truly get outside of your comfort zone with a bold risk.  And while you are at it, if you are going to succeed, do it with a freakin’ ticker-tape parade.

And most of all, let your fear of mediocrity inspire you to make bold choices instead of holding you back, because being afraid of mediocrity is kind of a mediocre attitude in itself.

PS- If the idea of a mastermind conference with incredibly intelligent and interesting people (limited to 150 attendees or less, depending on the venue) sounds appealing to you, check out  I’ll be at the one in Colorado September 17-18th and then back in Chicago next spring.

Article written by
Carol Roth is a national media personality, ‘recovering’ investment banker, investor, speaker and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Entrepreneur Equation. She is a judge on the Mark Burnett (Shark Tank, The Voice, Survivor, The Apprentice) produced technology competition series, America's Greatest Makers, airing on TBS and Host of Microsoft's Office Small Business Academy show. Previously, Carol was the host and co-producer of The Noon Show, a current events talk show on WGN Radio, one of the top stations in the country, and a contributor to CNBC, as well as a frequent guest on Fox News, CNN, Fox Business and other stations. Carol's multimedia commentary covers business and the economy, current events, politics and pop culture topics. Carol has helped her clients complete more than $2 billion in capital raising and M&A transactions. She is a Top 100 Small Business Influencer (2011-2015) and has her own action figure. Twitter: @CarolJSRoth
  • Carol

    I really enjoyed your post to start out my week…it makes me think about taking things up a level. Mediocrity can be too comfortable. There really is no risk. No risk=no reward.

  • I00% AGREE with this blog post. I realized I was more scared of being average and having an average life than a business failing. I have failed before, but still here, still alive and still fighting. I actually learned so much from those past experiences that I never found in a book.

    So right now I am attempting to move mountains and it isn’t easy, however I could not live with myself unless I tried and went for it. I haven’t looked back and all that hard work is finally benefiting.

    Great post Carol.

  • Very interesting take Carol. At first I wasn’t so sure where you were taking us with this one. I always thought fearing failure was the worst thing you can do. But after finishing the article, you are sooooo right.

    We live in a world of immense popularity, mediocrity will get you utter failure, it just might be a little more comfortable than other failures. Schools constantly teach us to be one of the herd, conform to mediocrity, competition is for tyrants and maniacs, you know all that crap.

    I’m with you all the way on this one, people should always push themselves to achieve what they never have, to find a way where there is no way, to think of the impossible and make it possible. This is what makes us humans the dominant animals on this rock!

    Rise to the opportunity that each day presents to achieve greatness. Forget about failure and don’t even entertain the notion of mediocrity!

  • Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

    You are spot-on correct, “mediocrity will get you utter failure.” At its core mediocrity is based on that same kind of thinking to which Einstein referred. Quite honestly, I’ve lost accounts because the firm wanted to stick with their “it worked before” or “this is how we do it” strategy, than listen to a consultant like me that advocated challenging conventional wisdom and thinking differently.

    Typically a year or two later, I get another call but usually by a new CMO.

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  • Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post. I’ve been saying this same thing for over a year and this truth applies to almost everything in life I can think of. No middle of the road, I’m either soaking in the mud or soaking up the sun. I think traveling is a great example…I’d rather be roughing it in a great park/campground or ordering room service at a posh hotel…who wants to stay at that scary single-floor discount motel?? lol


  • AGREED Carol…100%. You’ve got my wheels turning and my heart pumping. I’m off to write a blog about this same subject, only with my own personal spin, of course. 😉

    Well done my friend. Thanks! I’ll see you at SOBCon Colorado and Chicago.

  • @Karen:

    I am glad it resonated with you! Let me know what you do to take it to the next level- I look forward to hearing!


  • @Nick

    I think being average is completely frightening. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to hearing about your successes.


  • @Andrew:

    Thanks as always for the additions. Why do you think that schools focus so much on conformity? Is it laziness on their part? Or perhaps fear there too?


  • @Robert:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Love the Einstein quote- something we should continually keep in mind.
    Kudos for continually pushing the envelope!


  • @JennyB:

    Thanks for your additions and for the tie back to personal life too. I think that I need to keep that in mind (it will at least help me to rationalize some upcoming luxuries- lol)!


  • @Kimberly
    Glad it has gotten the juices flowing. I look forward to seeing you in person this week at SOBCon!


  • I agree that we should not settle for mediocrity. However, are you suggesting that continually ask ourselves “am I mediocre?”

    I once had a college professor say that to me and it sent me out of the studio in tears. Was she trying to encourage me to challenge myself or she just being mean? I didn’t follow through because I was so shaken; now I wish that I had. When external comments are made without explanation or discovery of circumstances is just as bad as unwarranted criticism.

    If we must label someone’s effort (products) as mediocre than please tell them “why” and offer encouragement so that one can challenge themselves to greatness.

  • Very interesting and thought provoking… I personally believe that fear is good for us… it keeps our thought process in check, it tells us what’s important and what’s not, it tells us we are trying something unconventional, and it keeps us moving… Coincidently, I wrote about Fears recently too and the article appeared at Under30CEO take a look:

  • Great post, Carol.

    Running from mediocrity is a huge driver of mine too.

    In fact, it’s interesting that, to kill mediocrity for myself, I created a business that optimizes websites and kills their mediocrity too. Perhaps I’m overboard 😉

    There’s a down side to being driven by fear of mediocrity, though. You’ll make people around you uncomfortable. To many, I think, it’s better to be less driven personally if it allows them to maintain the same family and friend connections.

    I would rather continue growing and killing mediocrity and gaining relationships with others that want to grow too!

  • @Carol,

    Now you got me pondering our entire society with that question. lol

    Honestly, I don’t think our schools are meant to groom leaders, I think they are meant to produce followers. Some schools, that most parents can’t afford to send their kids to focus on building leaders, others are focused on keeping the wheels turning. What good are we if we are all leaders? Who then will follow? All of this free thinking Entrepreneurial ideology may upset the apple cart. After all, who then will want to clean the toilets, empty the garbage and the like?

    I’m not sure that most people really do fear mediocrity, just as you say. They fear failure so they don’t try, or they fear success so they sabotage themselves. This, some would have you believe is the secure and easy way to do things.

    Of course, I on the other hand think that all a security blanket will do is keep you from experiencing this thing called LIVING!

  • @Joann
    I think that is a question one can only answer for themselves. I constantly challenge myself to not be mediocre, to not do mediocre work. This is a personal gauge, not based on anyone else but myself.

    As for your professor, I don’t know what her intentions were, but I wouldtake it as a challenge!

    Here’s to all of us striving for excellence.

  • @Devesh

    Thanks for sharing. Fear can be harnessed (I have an upcoming interview with Steve Farber about it) and if you use it as a guiding instead of a limiting factor, then you are ahead of the game!


  • @Chris:

    I think that is awesome! My philosophy is that if you aren’t making people uncomfortable, you are probably boring, or at least not taking a strong enough stand on things that are important to you.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • @Andrew

    Just got back from Seth Godin’s talk today and he enlightened us to the true story that our educational system was set up by Industralists to train people to work in factories. It all makes sense now…


  • @Carol

    I knew I was on to something… they want to keep us DUMB!!! lol I’m a damn genius 🙂

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  • Carol,
    I believe you are quite right when saying some of use fear of being mediocre…It is a matter of culture at the same time.I have learnt not to be mediocre from my dear mom who died.I hate being mediocre…I have avoided from it by not being aware of it.Now I will try to be mediocre by writing my first article.It will be not the top but below average. I will collect al of my courage to be a mediocre.

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