Is Mediocrity Good Enough?

For the vast majority of my life, I thought mediocrity was a bad thing. But then I moved into the world of higher education and was told I was wrong. A college professor acted as if I didn’t know the meaning of the word. He lectured me that mediocre is average and, because most people are average (by definition), mediocrity is not a bad thing.

Of course, I didn’t need a someone with a Ph.D. to explain the meaning of the word to me. But I suppose he thought I did because he could tell that I didn’t think colleges, professors or anyone else for that matter should settle for mediocrity. He was there to remind me that I was wrong: that mediocre was just fine.

It got me to thinking: maybe he was right. Perhaps mediocrity is O.K. Everything is relative. Why not simply accept mediocrity?

Mediocre or poor performance abounds to be sure. From what I can tell, architects are a particularly mediocre breed. If not, how do you explain all the ugly architecture that assaults our senses in nearly every community? (That’s not to say there aren’t some really good architects. There are.)

In the worlds with which I have intersected the most during my lifetime, there are ample examples of mediocrity. An attorney in another state is currently representing a company in which I have an affiliation. The insurance company chose her and her firm. They’re mediocre at best.

Yet I know she and her firm are not aberrations. I’ve encountered many mediocre or worse attorneys in my lifetime. But I’ve also encountered many exemplary ones. In fact, some of the most talented and ethical people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with have been lawyers.

And then there is the world of higher ed. This is when the issue hit me in the face. The professor reminded me that, in his world, mediocrity was just fine. Indeed, given the nature of the system and the dearth of meaningful performance metrics, mediocre and poor performance can survive — indeed, thrive — in colleges in a way it can’t in many other industries or sectors of our economy.

But so what? Mediocre (or worse) architects still get hired. I know because ugly buildings are still being built. And mediocre (or worse) attorneys still get retained. And mediocre (or worse) colleges still manage to attract a new crop of freshmen each autumn.

Moreover, I’ve noticed that there doesn’t appear to be an obvious correlation between quality of performance and happiness. If anything, there might be an inverse correlation.

Take Wall Street, for example. Each year they recruit and employ the best and brightest of our nation’s college graduates. No one can characterize anything about this group as being mediocre. Yet the attrition rate is sky high. Many of these superstars aren’t happy.

I see it when comparing the field of law to education. Large law firms are filled with super-achievers — people who have excelled academically and are driven. They are anything but mediocre. Yet surveys repeatedly reveal a high rate of depression. As a group, they are not as happy as college professors.

Perhaps one is better off accepting mediocrity. Perhaps striving for excellence is an unhealthy endeavor.

Yet many people do strive for excellence. I suppose there are different reasons — perhaps it’s a combination of nature and nurture and something over which we have little or no control.

Some people strive to be the best as a means of self-validation. Their concept of self-worth is entirely dependent upon their performance and achievements.

Perhaps some people excel, in large part, because they were born with superior genes and, therefore, superior performance comes easier to them. Einstein was such a person. And we see it in the field of professional sports.

Some people are driven to superior performance due to an obsession or overriding goal. Mark Cuban said he always wanted to be rich. He was driven to achieve that objective. He wouldn’t have achieved his goal by being mediocre.

I also suspect some people’s performance is mediocre or poor because they find themselves caught in a job that doesn’t interest or challenge them. Or they’re working for a demotivating boss. It’s easy to say they should leave the job and find one that is a better fit for their interests and ambitions, but that’s easier said than done in many instances.

There are probably other reasons for superior performance, on one hand, and mediocre or poor performance, on the other hand. Indeed, countless books and essays have been written on the subject. But what’s the significance for me? Or for you, Vera? Will you be comfortable with mediocrity and, if you are, will that be O.K.?

Some people think mediocre isn’t as safe as it used to be. Another college professor, well-known economist Tyler Cowen, wrote a book titled Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.  Chapter titles such “The Big Earners and the Big Losers,” “Why Are So Many People Out of Work?,” “The New World of Work,” “Relearning Education” and “The End of Average Science” give us an indication of his thesis. Space doesn’t permit delving into his book in any depth here, but suffice it to say that the professor doesn’t think that average (mediocrity) is as safe as it once was, either for workers or nations.

I see it playing out in the economy. Companies have been raising the bar for years and lopping off the bottom of their workforces. General Electric under Jack Welch was renowned for this, requiring the bottom 10% of performers to be let go each and every year.

It was once possible to land a decent job out of law school if you had been a mediocre law student. Today, it’s unlikely. Clients and firms only want the best. No one wants to pay for mediocrity, and given the supply glut in the global labor market, they don’t have to.

I also see that there are fewer places of security for mediocre performers. Colleges are converting tenured positions (those teaching slots that essentially guarantee lifetime employment irrespective of performance) into so-called “contingent” positions (ones that enjoy no such job guarantee). Cost savings is one of the main reasons, but there is another: a widespread recognition among administrators and boards that guaranteed lifetime employment engenders complacency and creates a culture of mediocrity.

Increasingly, consumers are being given access to the information they need to distinguish superior from mediocre or poor. In days past it was nearly impossible to compare the performance of doctors or lawyers or colleges. Who was to say which one was better?

Today, you merely need a computer and internet connection. The information is still sketchy, but each year the databases become more robust and I have no doubt that we are headed into a world in which quality comparisons will be easier and quicker in most fields.

In short, it’s getting harder for mediocrity and poor to hide — which means there are risks that weren’t present in earlier times.

Of course, it may be that you won’t have much say in the matter, Vera. It may be that this disposition will be inherited or instilled by the parenting and environment in which you will be reared.

However, if it turns out you do have a say in the matter, I ask you to consider this one question: What do I owe the people whom I serve?

This question takes me back to the law firm I joined after graduating from law school: Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott in Pittsburgh. It was in the early days at that firm that this value was reinforced time and time again: your client is entitled to your very best (within the bounds of the law and high ethical standards).

Mediocrity had no home at ESC&M. Mediocrity would have meant you were letting someone else down.

We all serve someone. No matter what career or job you pursue in life, you are serving someone. As a lawyer, I served my clients and society. As a college president or teacher, I served my students, institution and colleagues. As a cabinet secretary, I served the citizens of Pennsylvania and my governor. As a corporate CEO, I served my colleagues, our customers and our shareholders. You get the point: we all serve someone.

When you decide whether a mediocre effort and performance are good enough, or whether you should strive to be and do your best, consider the impact on others. And consider whom you serve. Others? Or only yourself?

When you answer that question, I suspect you will have answered the one that appears in the title of this post.

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