• Evan Warfel

On Venkatesh Rao's The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial


In The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial, Venkatesh Rao not only nails many aspects of millennial and tech culture, he also does so respectfully, without needlessly bashing "millennials." Which makes his essay perhaps the only accurate theory of millennialism I've seen. (Every time I see an article like "Millennials are ruining snobbishness" I indulge in a brief fantasy of writing a piece called The Defensive Generations, about all of the non-millennials. I'll leave it to you to fill in what it's about.)

What is "premium mediocre"? Rao gives several examples, the most succinct of which is "the best wine at olive garden." The basic idea is that there are several elements of culture designed to engender a honest sense of false luxury, as opposed to something that's just trying to trick you. Here are a few more examples that I've come up with:

"Premium mediocre" is everyone's Instagram feed, and everyone's Instagram post history. It is also the difference in feeling between the act of booking a room via Airbnb and the act of booking a hotel room.

"Premium mediocre" is Uber's black car option, and the Lyft equivalent. The concept also covers the fancy olive oils available at Trader Joes, and every type of selfie stick.

By and large, "premium mediocre" is a logical offshoot of the cultural notion that everyone can be successful can therefore indulge in "exclusive" things that aren't actually, strictly speaking exclusive. It's an illusion that people are aware they've bought into, and Rao can explain why.

Furthermore, Rao's framework explains our culture's recent tendencies towards "Performative Success," where people signal that they are, in fact, "winning" via giving Tedx-bakersfield talks, practiced selfies, self-published ebooks, and bougie smoothies. (All of which can be described as premium mediocre, and the latter of which falls under what Rao calls "The Avacado Toast Paradox.")

Maya Millennial is a great, thought provoking essay, written to be read both once as well as several times. Rao's analysis is built upon many layers of concepts that he's had to personally derive in order to express his opinions; the conceptual landscape he builds is one where all of the landscape-parts help further his point even if many seem initially obscure -- he expects his readers to figure things out for themselves.

I highly recommended reading it.

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Rao's essay brings up many questions, two of which I'll poke at here.

First. What has caused the rise of premium mediocrity and our societal tendency towards performative success?

One possible cause is these trends are the result of thousands of "fake it till you make it / it's okay to fail" graduation speeches (not to mention similar messages in television, books, and movies). Such speeches implicitly suggest that one is supposed to attend to whether one is "successful" in the abstract and be constantly evaluating whether one is "succeeding" or "failing." A collective focus on "succeeding" means a demand for products and experiences that reinforce feeling successful, inculding signaling one's success to others. (That advice regarding "success" and "failing" isn't quite internally focused enough to be useful is a story for a another day.)

Additionally, another possible cause is that some of our current societal trends are the product the interaction of two aspects of recent history. The first is that the last 3-5 generations of human beings have all experienced enormous changes in the fabric of society, meaning that parents' implicit expectations about how the future will be better have been continually passed down to their children for several generations. The second is that for about 25-30 years, starting in ~1950, most people across the wage distribution experienced similar gains in wages. Economic inequality did not increase. From a technological/scientific progress point of view, this period of time has also been dubbed "the golden quarter"; an era of what can only be summarized as LOTS OF INNOVATION. To live and grow-up during this time was to experience rapid technological advancements that come during a time of relatively stable economic growth. During this period of history, not only did many aspects of life change (including recommended diets, popular psychological advice, the rate of the diffusion of information, advertising, the ability to use a personal line of credit just about anywhere, and the availability of Julia Child recipes) but the changes that affect a person's experience of living tend to improve it, all in front of a backdrop of regular promotions and raises and one's economic security not getting relatively worse.

However, both the golden quarter and across-the-board similar amounts of experienced growth have turned out to be historical anomalies.

What this means is many parents of millennial raised their kids while operating with expectations (and expectations about their own expectations, etc.) built on an system whose stability was illusory. Moreover, the height of this illusion happened when millennials were raised. In other words, millennials are responding to pressure to succeed by trying to do so, and Rao analyzes how. What no one has seemingly talked enough about is that "success" never happens over year. It always takes time; and many young people driven to "succeed" simply haven't had enough space to do so yet.

(Side note / complete tangent: That we are now living in what historians will call a third industrial revolution, largely caused by the internet and computer programming is hardly a novel idea. One result of an increasingly connected world is that changes, ideas, and improvements propagate more easily, meaning that any semblance of of further "industrial revolutions" will spread more rapidly than they have before. It seems no stretch to say that industrial revolution 3.5 or 4 will be centered around neural networks. Sure, self-driving cars and self-driving trucks are one thing, but what about self-driving tractors, self-driving construction equipment, and self-driving mining carts? All are made possible by recent advances in machine learning. In other words, it's possible that we are living through industrial revolutions 3 and 4 simultaneously.)

Second. What does "success" mean?

The answer to this question is worthy of an entire blogpost itself. There are many things to consider, including: Is success achieving the goals one sets out to pursue? Is it choosing the right goals in the first place? I lean towards a combination of both, but with a few caveats: though we may think otherwise, we aren't always in tune with what we think we need, success is that which encourages growth, and our values and worldviews (which inform our notions of success) can change over time. (Having written this paragraph, I can now confirm that a blog post on this topic is in the backlog.)

In the meantime, I think it's interesting to note that there is likely a soft limit to the number of people you've never men you can pay attention to. If you were to poll people about the number of people they were aware of but didn't personally know, including their favorite authors, musicians, athletes, actors and politicians, I imagine that most people's "Celebrity Working Memory" is at the outside, large enough for roughly 500-2500 people. If success means becoming part of a household name in some household somewhere, being successful means breaking into an incredibly small subset.

There's a similar misconception that can crop up we have when we naively opine about which movies are good or bad or the quality of Taylor Swift's latest single. The misconception is that we think that by refining our opinions we become better at discerning artistic merit for art in general. However, what happens is that we better at discriminating between items that are in the right-tail of the distribution of quality. The 20 worst movies most people have seen aren't going to be, from the standpoint of "the entire distribution of film quality" too terrible.

Instead, most of the bad films are made by people trying to get better at making films. I'm willing to bet the overwhelming majority of the worst novels ever written never make it to publication. This is all fine and good (and not to mention how the world works). But for someone to pursue success means they have to figure out how to cross the distribution, and if their peers or family only knows how to evaluate items from the right-tail, then said peers and family will be confused for a while.

Once again, because "crossing the distribution" isn't normally talked about as "winning", people working at it often engage in performative success. Because to the right crowd, performative success is identical to being successful.

This started off as a post about recent things I've been reading and various links worth following. I've since split it into two, the second one will be forthcoming shortly.

#VenkateshRao #Success #Millennialism