Eleanor Ross doesn’t immediately strike me as being in any way mediocre.
For starters, she’s dialling to our chat from Rome, where she’s just started a new communications job. Her journalism CV reads like a rundown of Britain’s most illustrious publications and at 31, she has just published her second book. So far, so ‘successful’.
And yet, in 2019, Ross broke down. Suicidal and overwhelmed, she found herself heading to a bridge in London with the express aim of ending her life. In the months that followed, her assessment of the path she took to mental health crisis revealed a scenario all too familiar to many – striving for success, saying yes to every opportunity, and collapsing under the weight of it all.
“I’m not a particularly depressed person, I’m very seize the day. And I think my brain just snapped,” she muses now. “I was trying to do too much. I took on too many things. I had been a freelance journalist for a decade, and it got to the point where I was saying yes to everything. You never want to miss an opportunity, you never want to say no, or sour a relationship with somebody. It was up to me to manage those deadlines, and ultimately I delivered none of them. Because my brain just went…” she tails off, waving her arms around in some physical approximation of an explosion.
This is the scenario Ross unpicks in her new book, Good Enough: The Myth of Success and How to Celebrate the Joy in Average. Effectively a call to arms for the overworked, it delves deep into the causes of koinophobia – the fear of mediocrity – and asks not just where it comes from, but why we run ourselves into the ground trying to escape it.
Tackling everything from the pressures of social media in the age of the side hustle, to property prices, childhood dreams and the myth of meritocracy, Ross lays bare the unprecedented expectations so many of us found ourselves facing, even before the coronavirus pandemic came along and made everything that much more like wading through treacle.
“Pre-pandemic, I would see these amazing women doing very intense workouts, and then going to sit behind a desk for 12 hours in the city, or wherever. And I just thought, ‘Gosh, why are we doing this? What’s it for?’” Ross explains. “It sounds a bit nihilistic and existential, but it comes from worrying about the fact we’re really damaging ourselves. Everything has become a competition. From social media, through to cooking, to parenting.
“And now, it’s definitely got harder,” she sighs “During COVID, the blurring of our time, the cramming in an hour or two, wherever you can, to work. I don’t have kids, but a lot of my friends do, and the situation for them is crazy. I found myself logging in at 4am this morning, and I’ve taken a step back already. So, if that’s happening to me, I mean, God knows what everyone else is doing right now.”
For Ross, a huge part of the pressure we feel comes to down to upbringing. Like so many women her age, she was raised, she says, to believe she could do anything. That anyone could be exceptional if they just worked hard enough. It’s a damaging myth, she says, that overlooks the fact we simply do not live in a meritocracy.
“One of the key things we need to realise is that no matter how hard we push, we might not necessarily get to where we want, because there are large obstacles in our way. And I am writing that not as a deterrent, but as something that should be reassuring – that we can only do our best given our circumstances.
“You might be an absolutely phenomenal journalist, or designer, or theatre director. But if you don’t have the family money, a house in London, the disposable income to pay for networking events… Yes, you might well make it if you’ve got the drive and passion and talent, but you’re starting from such a back foot. And I think being aware of those limitations should reassure us, and help us cut ourselves some slack.”
If this sounds like a treatise on accepting less, however, Ross is adamant it’s not. Instead, she says, the book is aimed at recalibrating ideas about what is actually important, learning to strive for happiness and satisfaction, instead of assuming we’ll slow down and start living when we reach some arbitrary life goal. Her hope is not to encourage a mass downing of tools – rather, it is about recognising the systems that fail us, and focussing our attentions on changing them, rather than sprinting all the harder to try and outrun them.
“We need to challenge the status quo,” Ross says, defiantly. “This is not a book saying, ‘Oh, well, rich white CIS men have always been in charge. I’m exhausted, and I don’t have the capacity to change that,’ because we must. But my point is that we cannot challenge anything if we’re spread so thinly, if we’re constantly trying to compete with others on really small things, like interior design on Instagram. You can’t fight a battle if you’re broken. I just feel the way we’re going about it right now is not probably the best way. And while I’m not an expert, I say that as someone who’s felt it very acutely.”
Running against the tide
Ross’ twenties were spent striving to build a career in journalism. From the age of six she’d harboured a dream of becoming a foreign correspondent – but the reality of freelancing was somewhat different to the life she’d imagined.
“For the first five years, I couldn’t say no. I am not a trust fund kid, I did not have parents or family living in London, so I very much got into a state, because I was desperately trying to make rent. And there are so many people, that’s a reality for their entire lives.
“I was making excuses not to see my parents, because I had a deadline. But my parents aren’t going to be around forever and today I can’t even remember what that deadline was, and that’s wrong, for me. I lost the drive to be a formidable journalist. It wasn’t fun anymore. I was earning a decent living, but I just really wasn’t enjoying it.”
For Ross, the solution was stepping back from journalism in favour of a more reliable communications job. That move, she says, enabled her to refocus. She began spending more time with friends and family, less time on social media. She got a dog. She found more balance.
It is a situation, she believes, that many people now find themselves facing, the pandemic having thrown our working lives into a sharp new focus. “It’s a complete position of white privilege to be able to just say, ‘You know what? Just say no’”, she acknowledges. “Not everyone has that option. But I do think we all can look at the ways we are comparing ourselves to others, be a bit more empathetic, have a bit more kindness.
“It’s about saying ‘I understand why I might not achieve what I want to achieve this year, and that is okay.’ I think that is absolutely essential during COVID, and even for a year or two after this ends as we start to piece our lives back together. We have the opportunity to change. It opens up possibilities, and for that I’m super hopeful and optimistic.
“And I think, fundamentally, it’s removing that edge of competitiveness from daily life in areas where we don’t need to fight. We have to fight for equal pay – but let’s not worry about whether one of our friends is doing a bikini pose in Mauritius. Let’s celebrate that and move on. Breathe out. Take up a hobby that doesn’t involve being competitive. Cook a meal and don’t post it on social media. Go for a run and don’t show it on Nike Run Club.
“Ultimately we need to cut ourselves some slack and go, ‘It’s fine to be good enough. It’s fine to be average.’ I’m completely mediocre just like everyone else. So what? Perhaps no one is about to give me an award for what I’m doing – but I’ve got a chance at happiness now. And that feels a whole lot better.”
Good Enough: The Myth of Success and How to Celebrate the Joy in Average is published by Hodder & Staughton (£12.99). Buy your copy here