The mediocrity effect

Sep 12th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Lately, I have spent considerable time reflecting on the statement, “A meeting moves at the pace of the slowest mind in the room.” Having sat through countless meetings, I tend to agree with the premise. Yet, thinking past the initial acceptance of the thought, I began to wonder what lies behind it.

Looking deeper into the problem, I considered the effect accepting mediocrity has on our society. A recent podcast discussed the unintended consequences of people being happy with, and accepting their bodies.

The host pointed out that because of this ideal, many people don’t try to take care of themselves. Then the unintended consequence becomes the many health issues associated with poor lifestyle habits. People fall into these bad habits because people are supposed to accept them as they are.

In business, people often refer to the “Peter Principle” when discussing incompetent managers. There is, however, a basic flaw in the principle. It overlooks the fact that we will never know what someone can handle until they are in that situation. In reality, everyone will have a position they can’t handle. The problem is we seldom move them back into positions suited to their skill sets. We leave them there because we don’t want to hurt their feelings or appear to have made a bad decision.

This brings me to author Ben Horowitz’s Law of Crappy People. “For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will converge to the crappiest person with the title. The rationale behind the law is that the other employees in the company with lower titles will benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level.”

Consider the old joke about two friends who need to run from a bear. Neither has to be faster than the bear, only a step faster than the other guy. In the corporate world, one only has to be a little less crappy than his colleagues.

As the English philosopher John Stuart Mill put it, “The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.” In other words, mankind pushes towards mediocrity because it is easier.

As with many things in our society, the acceptance of the mediocrity pendulum has swung too far. Comedian Brian Reagan does a bit about playing baseball and getting a snow cone. In the bit he tells how kids who only played half the game got a full snow cone, just like those who played the full game. From then on, he only wanted to play half the game and still get a full snow cone.

Anarchists among us have pushed for this acceptance of mediocrity. They push for it because not making someone feel bad is something most people can get behind. They push for it because it creates the emotions necessary to tear down “evil” institutions. They don’t often have a solution to the problem. They don’t like the problem and want something different. So they push toward mediocrity regardless of unintended consequences.

Accepting mediocrity at any level is bad. I appreciate Steve Job’s philosophy on always getting better. He said you should look back at your work six months ago and say it was crap because you have progressed since then. The problem is, progress takes effort and effort is difficult.

Like everything else in life, mediocrity is a choice. To overcome it, one must choose to not accept it. Gandhi’s quote holds the key. He said, “Be the change you want to see.” Raising your sights higher, then holding yourself accountable, is the key.

Once you begin to be accountable, you can hold those around you accountable as well. No one sets out to be mediocre, but the world we live in has made it easy and acceptable. Mediocrity shouldn’t be acceptable anymore. We should want to run faster than the bear.

Jeff Hough is a business author, blogger and speaker in Pocatello.

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