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#19 - Icelandic Proverb: Mediocrity is Climbing a Molehill Without Breaking a Sweat.
Reflections on raising expectations, activities, and performance.
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An Icelandic Proverb dispenses wisdom through its pithy statement that: “Mediocrity is climbing molehills without breaking a sweat.” It’s the kind of proverb that wise people do not get tired of hearing and saying to others, while those on the quest for wisdom benefit from pondering as often as needed. Subconsciously, the word “molehill” conjures two images – a mountain and a hill. A mountain because of the popular saying “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” And a hill because it is the second part of the word.
There is no consensus on what constitutes a mountain and a hill. Both look similar and are landforms that extend above their surrounding terrains. Both are hard rocks, formed when tectonic plates collide. Mountains form from the force of collision of the tectonic plates while hills form when the plates pull apart. However, hills are smaller with gentle, rounded gradients while mountains are taller, steeper and do not round off at the top.
Once, the US and the UK defined a mountain as being 1,000 feet or taller and anything lower as being a hill. However, for more than fifty years, the US board has abandoned any attempt at a universally accepted definition of a mountain. They simply use general criteria that include elevation, volume, relief, steepness, spacing, and continuity to distinguish a mountain from a hill. In contrast, the UK and the Republic of Ireland adjusted their official definition so that any summit of 2,000 feet and above is a mountain and elevation below that is a hill. Whichever side of the pond you live in, what is clear is that what qualifies as mountains or hills are rocky summits above the surrounding terrain. Whether their tops are rounded or steep, whether they tower above 2,000 feet or are lower than that, both hills and mountains require some effort to hike.
Wikipedia outlines that there are currently 108 mountains on earth with elevations of 23, 622 feet or greater above sea level. All are located in East, Central or South Asia with Mount Everest being the highest at 29, 029 feet elevation. It is not a summit to wake up one morning and attempt to climb. Nor is it for the faint of heart or the heady of spirit to rush to at any point in time. Mistakes can be futile, and missteps, fatal. Success is based on the right knowledge acquired from intentional study and those who climb do so only after months or years of training. They attempt the feat at the right time of the year, with the right equipments, and in the right company.
In exploring different types of hills, Karin Williams of The Outdoor Federation explained that general types include “the syncline and anticline, which typically form when two different layers of rock push against each other and buckle.” There is also the “mesa,” which is created when molten lava from the earth cools and creates a flat-topped summit. Or any type of hill with a slope steeper on its north face than on its south. When describing types of hills, it is reasonable to expect that the definitions are for standard summits of hard rock that tower above the average human height. Not a molehill.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a molehill is “a little mound or ridge of earth pushed up by a mole.” The protruding heap of loose soil comes from waste materials that the animals excavate while building or repairing the mansions they tunnel underground. Multiple mounds form atop the soil, often in lines that may indicate the underground route of the burrow or side tunnels. Yet, however many mounds the moles pile up above the ground, the depth of molehills in general are always between 1 foot and 1.5 feet elevation. Which brings us to the crux of the Icelandic proverb that “mediocrity is climbing molehills without breaking a sweat.”
This proverb raises several foundational questions starting with what in the world you are doing climbing molehills. Of the hundreds of mountains and the thousands of hills to climb, what would make you think to attempt to climb a mound that’s only about a foot high? Is it to show up and mark yourself present for hiking? Or to show off your skills or muscles as a hiker? On a field dotted with multiple molehills, the tallest would still be the 1.5 feet mounds. So, how many of those Mount Everest type of mounds could make you break out in a sweat? How many could you possibly climb to earn you a pat on the back for not breaking a sweat? Or how long would you spend on a field with molehills that could make passersby hail you a hero for climbing and not sweating?
This proverb indicates that whoever else considers climbing molehills without breaking a sweat noteworthy is operating in mediocrity. The act is not worthy to be considered a feat. The actor is not deserving of commendation. And the cheerleader of such an actor is an accomplice in mediocrity. Merriam-Webster defined the entire mediocrity charade as “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance; ordinary, so-so.”
To expect to climb molehills and break a sweat is a setup for failure. To receive praise for climbing such heights is self-deception. The tired may hail the activity, thinking it is at least doing something commendable. Likely, you are not one to be driven by a misguided sense of loyalty or love to commend someone climbing a molehill instead of training to climb a real hill or mountain.
Equally important, please do not slip into self-delusion to engage in such foolery yourself. Do not flippantly accept praise for activities such as climbing molehills. Assess if you are indeed productive or merely active. Elevate your expectations, activities, and performance beyond the moderate or low quality, value, and ability that is so-so and mediocre.
You are built for high elevation. Please brave real hills and leave molehills alone.
You can ascend great heights with your talents and time. Please get in the right frame of mind and shape to brave whichever hill or mountain you need to climb.
Break a sweat. Celebrate sweating. Strive for excellence. You can climb hills. Just do it.
What hills do you need to start training to climb but keep putting off? What molehills do you need to flatten or stop climbing? Share with us.
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Know someone who has been active climbing molehills rather than training to climb a real hill? Think they could benefit from a nudge with the reminder in this post?
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