Escaping the Premium Mediocre

Out of the last 12 hours, I have spent one hour thinking about soccer and another thinking about Korean chicken. The other 10 hours I spent thinking about The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial.

Like all essays by Venkat, this one is optimized for getting you to think about it. Venkat achieves it by precisely crafting his writing to be 60% true, 30% wrong and 10% nonsensical. But the true 60% of Premium Mediocre is deeply and importantly true, and also really fun to read. It’s a long essay and I’ll quote liberally from it, but if you are only going to read my post or the original, go read the original.

The wrong 30% is there to be interestingly wrong, and also to focus the attention on the true parts. If 5% of an argument is wrong, readers will nitpick that 5% to death. This has always been a huge source of frustration on LessWrong. If an argument is 30% wrong but 100% inspiring, no one cares about nitpicking errors.

And yet, I’m going to mostly focus on the 30% that Venkat missed so that those who read both essays can understand better the core reality of premium mediocrity.

If you’re curious, Putanumonit is 75% true and 25% stupid. This ratio is the result of my writing about topics at the edge of my expertise. For example, I know a lot about financial regulation and a little about economic inequality. I’m only going to write about the latter, because writing about the former would be too boring.

Welcome to the Premium Mediocre

Premium mediocrity is right at the edge of my expertise. I am around it, but not really of it. Before I explain why I’m not really it, I’ll let Venkat describe what it is:

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes. […]

The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich. […]

The entire idea of the country that is France is kinda premium mediocre (K-Pop is a big hit there, not coincidentally). The fact that Americans equate “French” with “classy” is proof of its premium mediocrity (Switzerland is the actually elite European country). […]

Premium mediocrity is the story of Maya Millennial, laughing alone with her salad. She’s just not a millionaire…yet. She just doesn’t have a mansion…yet. She just doesn’t drive a Tesla…yet.

The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all.

As a result, as another buddy Rob Salkowitz put it in our Facebook discussion, premium mediocrity is creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone. […]

Premium mediocrity is not clueless, tasteless consumption of mediocrity under the mistaken impression that it is actual luxury consumption. Maya Millennial is aware that what she is consuming is mediocre at its core, and only “premium” in some peripheral (and importantly, cheap, such as French-for-no-reason branding) ways. But she consumes it anyway. She is aware that her consumption is tasteless, yet she pretends it is tasteful anyway.

The distinguishing feature is that premium mediocrity only signals an appearance of striving upwards. Everybody in the premium mediocre world recognizes that it is not a reliable indicator of actual upward striving, such as number of code commits on github, or non-bot retweets achieved by on a tweet.

In other words, premium mediocrity is dressing for the lifestyle you’re supposed to want, in order to hold on to the lifestyle you can actually afford — for now — while trying to engineer a stroke of luck.

I’m a millennial living in New York City, in a premium mediocre neighborhood that’s second only to Williamsburg in its premium mediocrity. I like froyo, Game of Thrones, artisan pizza, and France. However, I don’t need to pretend that any of those things are markers of great taste. I actually get sincere, intrinsic pleasure from consuming them.

If you’re not sure what the difference is, ask yourself: would I consume this thing if no one ever knew about it? I’m a season and a half behind on GoT because I just watch the show, I don’t need to talk to anyone about it. I’ll watch the entire thing eventually, by myself.

Enjoying things sincerely is actually a lot cheaper than consuming the premium mediocre. My favorite wine is Apothic Red, a semi-sweet blend of unidentified and undated California grapes. It sounds like a sommelier’s nightmare. It’s not authentic, not cool, and certainly not premium. It’s also just $9 a bottle and utterly delicious.

My premium mediocre friends drink Chateau de Ferrand St-Emilion Grand Cru. It’s French, it’s really fun to pronounce, it’s from 2010 (and says so on the bottle). It costs $25. It’s a lot more tasteful than Apothic, but I’m not sure if it’s as tasty.

What’s behind this difference? Premium Mediocre is a fake-it-till-you-make-it class, and as such there are two things at the heart of it: signaling and uncertainty. Signaling, because you have to fake it to have a shot at making it. Uncertainty, because you’re not sure if you will.

Signaling

Venkat talks about signaling, but I think he misses the point. To be fair, he actually makes the point, in the part that I bolded below, but then he still misses it:

Viewed as a voluntarily chosen consumption aesthetic, premium mediocrity does not make sense. Why would anyone knowingly pay too much for obviously inferior products and experiences? Why would anyone pay a premium merely to present a facade of upward striving? Why would anyone participate in maintaining a false consciousness knowing it is false? Why would anyone choose the Blue Pill if it didn’t come with a comforting amnesia?

Why would you give up consumption value for signaling value if none of your in-group peers, among whom you are striving for status, is actually fooled by the signaling?

Who is the illusion for?

Part of the answer, in one word, is parents.

Premium mediocrity is in part a theater put on by Maya Millennial in part to spare the feelings of parents. Inter-generational love, not inter-generational war.

The premium mediocre harbor few illusions about their economic condition. The false consciousness at the heart of it is manufactured for the benefit of a parental generation that is convinced it has set the kids up for success.

What premium mediocrity signals to your in-group peers isn’t that you’re better or higher status than they are, it’s that you’re just like them. You do it so they would hang with you, and so they would pass on your resume if they land a decent job somewhere first. Most importantly, and Venkat probably missed this because he’s Gen-X and married, you signal your premium mediocrity so that premium mediocre people will date you.

I’ve heard that Bumble is the new premium mediocre dating app, but I’ll get some screenshots of premium mediocrity from my old favorite, OkCupid. I searched for women aged 22-35 in Manhattan and Brooklyn. All the screenshots below are from the first 10 profiles that came up, not filtered or selected in any other way:

OKC1OKC2OKC3OKC4OKC5

Eel sushi, Breaking Bad, Greek yogurt, Black Mirror, Argentine tango, “epicurean hedonist sloth”. I don’t know if these ladies talk to their parents about any of the above exquisitely premium mediocre items, but it’s front and center on their dating profiles. You gotta be PM to date PM.

I enjoyed a lot of premium mediocre dates with premium mediocre Maya Millenials, but ultimately they didn’t make the top of the spreadsheet. To understand why I ended up with someone just outside the PM, we need to meet two more characters:

You have to situate premium mediocrity, which is a mainstream ethos, relative to its two marginal subcultural neighbors within the same economic stratum: the hipster class to the left, and the lifestyle-designing Tim Ferriss class to the right.

Unlike Maya Millennial, your friendly neighborhood artisan barista Molly Millennial actually cares enough about taste to log serious hours cultivating itMolly Millennial’s condition is sincerely aestheticized precarity. To forget, if only for a moment, the unsustainability of one’s economic condition by making obsessively high-quality latte art, is to access a temporary retreat from awareness of your false consciousness.

And at the other end of the spectrum you have the hustler, Max Millennial, arbitraging living costs and, with a bit of geo-financial judo, attempting a Boydian flanking maneuver around the collapsing middle-class script.

Four-hour workweek my ass. The Bali-based lifestyle designer people are the second hardest working people I know. Second only to hipsters avariciously collecting and hoarding TasteCoins.

Though polar opposites in many ways — Max is mercenary and instrumental-minded, Molly is missionary and appreciation-minded — they are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Both are likely to be young, white (the premium mediocre class is relatively more diverse), and blessed with Boomer parents given to snide remarks about participation trophies and entitlement. Both are throwbacks to an earlier Catcher-in-the-Rye anti-phoniness ethos. Both are likely acutely aware of their privileges even as they navigate their difficulties.

When my fiancée and I read this part, we had the exact same thought: Max should date Molly! Molly can help Max with the cultural capital he’s missing out on, introduce him to good coffee and cool friends. Max can help Molly make rent and fly out to Bali. By the way, this option is severely underutilized by hipster guys. 37% of Goldman Sachs employees are women, and they all really like good coffee.

My fiancée isn’t a hipster about coffee, she’s a hipster about potassium ion channels in touch receptor neurons. It’s obvious from my writing that I’m a wannabe scientist. My fiancée introduces me to her scientist friends and lets me play at science by doing statistical analysis on the data from her lab. Science is an enjoyable component of our relationship, and it’s also too transparent a field for serious signaling. By bonding over things like science and rationality, we don’t have to signal our premium mediocrity to each other.

Uncertainty

The markers of the premium mediocre class persist because of intra-class signaling, but the class originally acquired those markers because of the economic uncertainty its members share. I avoided the ambiguous economic situation that leads to premium mediocrity by pure luck of circumstance.

In 2010, I was making minimum wage working a non-premium job in a non-premium city in the Israeli periphery. Instead of premium mediocre things like cocktail bars, climbing gyms and HBO, my friends and I drank Goldstar at home, played soccer and pirated video games.

In 2011, I enrolled in a business school that places 95% of its students in jobs with a median wage of $110,000. I went from being a galaxy away from the American middle class to an almost guaranteed ticket to the American middle class, without stopping in premium-mediocre-land on the way.

The real middle class life is about security, steady growth, and minimizing tail risk. Premium mediocre is about gambling. The smartest thing for a premium mediocre millennial to gamble on is their skills and personality. The stupidest thing to gamble on is cryptocurrency.

I got genuinely worried about Venkat while reading the following bit, but in retrospect, it’s so batshit that it must be a joke:

About the only path to wealth-building available to the average premium mediocre young person in the developed world today, absent any special technical skills or entrepreneurial bent, is cryptocurrencies.

The traditional wealth-building strategy in the US, home ownership, has turned into a mix of a mug’s game and unassailable NIMBY rentierism.

The public markets are no longer reliable wealth builders, while the private markets exclude almost everybody who isn’t already wealthy.

And the tech-startup options lottery and media-celebrity games are not open to those who can’t program at world-eating levels or shitpost at election-winning levels.

That leaves the cryptocurrency lottery as the only documented way up open to all, regardless of skills. Like many other denizens of the premium mediocre class, I too am aspiring cryptobourgeoisie, awaiting The Flippening.

I don’t doubt that cryptocurrencies have and will make many people rich. I just think that none of those people are premium mediocre.

There are tech savvy folks who bought 10 Bitcoins at $300 two years ago and sold them at $2,000 because they understand the blockchain. There are rich people who bought 100 Bitcoins at $600 one year ago after hearing from their tech savvy friends, and they still hold those Bitcoins at $5,000 because they could take that money or leave it. They invested in Bitcoin for the diversification and for the conversation, but it’s not their lottery ticket.

bitcoin chart

If you ever worked professionally as a trader or a gambler, you know that the premium mediocre people who bought one Bitcoin at $1,000 sold it at $1,200 instead of buying 10 more. They’ll do the same with the next 5 cryptocoins to come along, and then the sixth one will go from $1,000 straight to $0 and the premium mediocre crypto-adventure will come to an end with market with a final profit of $0 before fees.

Premium mediocre (aka naive) human psychology is remarkably ill-suited for casual trading and thinking in probabilistic terms. To make money gambling you need an edge or a big bankroll, usually both. The premium mediocre class, by definition, has neither.

The way to be rich is slowly: hard work, index funds, increasing your consumption by a small amount each year to avoid the hedonic ratchet. Most people who try to get rich quickly have one thing in common: they’re not rich.

FOMO

The best aspects of the premium mediocre stem from their hope of having it all. The worst aspects stem from the fear of ending up with nothing. Venkat thinks it’s worth it:

Neither Molly, nor Max, has accepted the bargain at the heart of premium mediocrity that Maya Millennial has, which is to refuse to deny either the need for meaning or the need for financial sustainability. Which is why — and this is definitely my attempt at supplying a redemptive account of Maya Millennial’s choices as being fundamentally the correct ones — she chooses to fake both for a while in the hope of acquiring both for good later.

Because Maya Millennial, you see, is the basic bitch. A risk-taker who wants it all. Meaning and money.

Molly thinks Maya has a taste problem; that she is a beyond-the-pale philistine. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term financial sustainability problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max thinks Maya has a skills problem; that she’s a bullshit artist who cannot deliver the twitter trends she pretends to understand. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term meaning problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max and Molly can no more escape awareness of the false consciousness at the heart of Premium Mediocrity than Maya, but they have crafted temporary refuges that make it easier to temporarily escape from whichever flavor of existential dread — lack of meaning and lack of financial sustainability — bothers them more.

I think it’s bullshit. Molly can dedicate her life to a craft she’s passionate about and still, by virtue of being an educated urban American, live better than 90% of the planet, just without the sushi and trips to France of the top 10%. Max can make money and find meaning in relationships, or in travel, or in writing a blog.

And what’s so fucking meaningful about delivering Twitter trends anyway?

Trying to get both money and meaning from the same place is an unnecessary constraint on life. The only reason people think that this constraint is essential is that 99% of memoirs are written by the 1% of people who got rich and famous by #FollowingTheirPassion.

Venkat argues that at the heart of premium mediocrity is a deep and essential kindness. I agree more with the commenter who argued that what really drives it is a “deep and essential FOMO”. Fear of missing out on success, fame, meaning, sushi, and all the premiums without which you may end up (gasp!) just mediocre.

Places like New York and San Francisco run on FOMO, and that’s why I love them. It makes them exciting, energizing, full of opportunity. I want to spend time around people who chase the premium rather than settling into the mediocre.

But the FOMO life has serious downsides. The FOMO life is hot takes instead of nuance, because being late is worse than being wrong. The FOMO life is paying 27% APR on your “premium” credit card. The FOMO life is 25-minute pomodoros but no 5-year plan. The FOMO life is why our generation is so unhappy, and why we keep adding to each other’s misery by crafting premium mediocre images on Facebook to taunt our friends.

I think we would all do better to accept being a little more mediocre, and letting the premiums find us when they may.

 

9 thoughts on “Escaping the Premium Mediocre

  1. Thanks! I really love this response.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to both love programming and be pretty decent at it, so I haven’t had the same insecurity that Venkat describes. But I was beginning to worry about my friends that aren’t programmers. And I’m glad that you’re more optimistic.

    In the nerd world, I haven’t noticed as much of the FOMO that he describes. I don’t feel threatened by not having made a trip to France, or not loving the right kind of wine or sushi.

    But I think nerds face a different kind of FOMO pressure, Sometimes people have an expectation that because you’re a nerd, you’ll be into every single thing that they associate with nerds. And given the increasing propensity of various subgroups to label themselves as nerds, that list of expectations is only growing.

    For example, it’s taken some time for me to be comfortable with facing the surprise on people’s faces when I admit that I still haven’t seen all of the Star Wars movies.

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    1. I’ve only seen Episode VII and it sucked, you’re in good company.

      Nerds have less status symbols to worry about, especially if you’re rationalist-adjacent. If you can talk explicitly about signaling and your friends understand you, you don’t have to do a lot of it. In our rationalist meetup group you’d see two people sitting next to each other, one make at least $250,000 and the other at most $25,000, and you couldn’t tell them apart.

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      1. I just watched Rouge 1 (it’s on Netflix; after the horribleness that was The Force Unleashed I am extremely hesitant about future movies even if they are highly rated) and it was good but it wouldn’t be the place to go to first get into things. The original trilogy would of course work best as an introduction but it’s not what I would recommend for you. Star Wars is not about making sense and it never has even from the beginning. I would recommend the Knights of the Old Republic (video games) for you. They’re role playing games and thus holds true to an arbitrary set of rules that other genres have the convince of ignoring.

        If you don't mind two 40 hour long roll playing games I would recommend them anyways even if you don't care about <i>Star Wars</i>.  George Lucas is awful as a writer but plenty in the expanded universe has truly well written stuff.  These two games are really well written and does what <i>Star Wars</i> does at it's best: it develops characters the audience will care about and then puts them in galaxy changing, tense, situations.  As far as it's connection to the rest of <i>Star Wars</i> the first game does a good job building up its philosophy and the second one does a good job tearing it down.  The story even makes sense (if you allow for the use of magic).
        

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  2. I have to say, your explanation of who premium mediocre is for (fellow millennials) rings a lot truer than Venkat’s. In particular, is Venkat’s second reason true at all? Does a social media presence full of premium mediocrity actually help a millennial get a job? What jobs?

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  3. Trying to get both money and meaning from the same place is an unnecessary constraint on life.

    A truly lovely sentence.

    no 5-year plan

    people trying to run their corporations and their lives like a communist dictatorship and then wondering why it isn’t working. Systems over goals.

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  4. It may be that I just haven’t heard the term in the same context as you, but to me FOMO conjures up images of an executive having a mid-life crisis. You know, “What if I had gone into the theater instead of this office job? What if there’s a hotter, more passionate woman out there than my wife? What if I there’s a nicer city than the one I live in?”

    Maya, on the other hand, knows she is missing out. She, personally, is entirely aware that all her crap is crap. She’s not a country bumpkin going to New York and excitedly talking about how different the olive garden there is from the one in Des Moines. The bumpkin is genuinely excited; Maya knows that the Olive Garden is shit.

    No, this is all signalling to people who really have wealth and can provide meaning “I have good taste and once you give me money I’ll show you how well I fit in.”

    It’s kind of the opposite of nouveau riche. The nouveau riche get lots of money and then try to use it to buy their way into the class of the old rich. Maya has no money or security, but maybe if she acts like she does someone will give it to her.

    Putanumonit’s account of Maya is soul chilling.

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  5. My impression after reading Venkat and then this post is that you are missing a pretty big part of the premium mediocre phenomenon, probably because you personally are much farther from premium mediocre than you think. But before I can explain why that is, I think it makes sense to try to explain my worldview, which I believe to be similar to Venkat’s. You don’t have to believe me, or think my worldview is correct, but I think if you can temporarily inhabit my headspace it might change how you see premium mediocre.
    I think that society and the global economy are moving in a direction where a tiny number of people can create such tremendous value to society that most other people won’t be able to contribute enough value in any way to justify their wages. Holes in the ground are pretty useful; if you live in a world without bulldozers anyone who can swing a shovel can be valuable to society. Lubricating human to human interactions is extremely valuable; in a world where computers can’t parse intention out of natural speech, anybody who can provide customer service can be valuable to society. But I am rather concerned that this is going to change in the next decade – that in a few more decades literally the only jobs that anybody would ever pay anybody else to do include: programming, providing human companionship (probably), and art (possibly). And we will only need maybe a hundred thousand programmers to power the entire world which means that the vast majority of humanity will be literally unemployable. They simply won’t be able to create enough value for society to be worth a paycheck when it will be so cheap and easy to just get a robot to do their job. Hopefully by the time we reach this stage we will have rewritten society so that people don’t even need jobs any more. But the transition time is probably going to be pretty rough for a lot of people.
    Now I don’t need you to agree with me that this is true, all you need to do is accept that this is what I and many premium mediocre millennials believe. Premium mediocre millennials are young adults who were raised middle class and were given all the tools which the previous generation used to be middle class but who are, or believe themselves to be, for whatever reason, unable to provide enough value to society to be able to get a job which will keep them in the middle class, and so they are frantically struggling to keep up middle class appearances in the hopes that they won’t slip behind before society catches up to the new paradigm and cancels jobs forever. Its a state of mind of optimism about where the future will lead that is used to paper over a deep existential dread.
    I think that you don’t fully understand premium mediocre because you currently feel valuable. You have a job, a job history, and future job prospects. You are valuable. But currently, I am not. And a lot of millennials out there are not. And we know that generational poverty is one hell of a trap and we do not want to go there and so we are trying to keep up the appearance of being middle class in the hopes that once the future arrives and society gets fixed we can get right back into the middle class and cement our legacy.

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