"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mediocrity - You Either Have It Or You Don’t

Leon Wieseltier writing in The New Republic (8.10.13) quotes Flannery O’Connor reflecting on mediocrity:

Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.

It is hard to admit that one is just average, let alone the more pejorative adjective mediocre.  Everyone likes to think that they have a leg up on someone; or that they have a special talent or ability. According to Tyler Cowen in a new book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, the ante has gone up. In today’s world there is no room for the so-so.  Each person will either rise to the top or sink to the bottom:

Cowen declares that “average is over” is the catchphrase of our age. ... This maxim will apply to the quality of your job, to your earnings, to where you live, to your education and to the education of your children, and maybe even to your most intimate relationships. . . . They will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results.”

Wieseltier agrees that today’s world is hyper-competitive; but while he acknowledges that this competitive, entrepreneurial spirit which values innovation and success is very much a part of the American ethos, it describes only a fraction of society.  Most of us are average, he says, working at average jobs, spending hours a day at desks, behind the wheel, or selling cosmetics, never creating or inventing anything; maybe never even having a creative or unique thought.  Yet this so-called demise of average indirectly demeans the heart and soul of the country.

Wieseltier remarks on Oprah Winfrey’s commencement address at Harvard, dismissing it as treacly and simplistic as her television network, offering nostrums and platitudes that must have made those eager young men and women sitting in Harvard Yard wince if not snicker. 

“There is no such thing as failure”, said Winfrey and immediately explained her strange assertion: “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” The experience of defeat, in other words, is an error of interpretation. Nothing is bad that is followed by something else. Nothing is bad unless you call it bad. Only death, on this account, is a defeat, since it is followed by nothing, though I suppose that in her quackery Winfrey believes in an afterlife in which she dwells for eternity between Tom Cruise and Maya Angelou at God’s Oscar party

Of course there is failure, and these young Harvard graduates brimming with the supreme confidence that their elite education affords them, will perhaps never know it; or if they do, they will use it to reconfigure their model, or their aspirations.  Silicon valley has been built on the culture of failure – that is, if you don’t take risks, you will never succeed.  Failure is simply part of the risk equation. 

So Winfrey’s silly admonitions certainly fell on deaf ears.  No one in the Yard really thought that failure was what life was all about.  For that matter none of those bright-eyed graduates ever considered mediocrity as part of the bargain either.

So what’s the point? Most of the world is and always has been mediocre and average; and some of the world has always been ambitious, smart, savvy, and entrepreneurial.  The whole idea of the end of average is as pretentious as Francis Fukuyama’s infamous book about the end of history.  Moreover, our world today simply seems more competitive and sink-or-swim.  The Jews of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century hungry for American success and working their way from rag-picking to the garment industry lived in a more savage world than we can ever contemplate.  Subsequent immigrants from Latin America have no less ambition and desire to join the American mainstream. 

For these new Americans, average and mediocre are states of being to be avoided or overcome. The fact that few will succeed does nothing to dampen their enthusiasm or spirit.

Which brings us to the supposed attitude of the successful towards the average and mediocre:

The ferocity about economic competitiveness, its promotion into a standard by which to measure things it cannot measure (“intimate relationships ... to the top in terms of quality”), is resulting in a loss of respect for ordinary work and a soft contempt for ordinary people.

That is, Harvard students look down their noses at the pipe fitters in their home towns.

I do not think that this is true, and I suspect that for most ambitious Harvard students, the pipe fitter from Naugatuck simply doesn’t exist. His children might have gone to the same public high school, but more likely than not they had nothing to do with the bright and talented who were enrolled in honors programs or the International Baccalaureate. If prospective Ivy Leaguers went to St. Grottlesex, the chances were even slimmer of rubbing shoulders with the ordinary.

In other words, Harvard students don’t look down on the working class.  They simply have no idea who they are, what they do, and what their lives are like. If anything, they have a romanticized idea based on The Wire, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos.

The theory that average is dead is far from true.  As Wieseltier notes, there are too many ordinary, mediocre Americans pulling their weight, without which the talented elite could not survive.  It is of no consequence what Harvard students think of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians except that they come when called, charge fairly, and don’t leave in the middle of a job.

I recently met a young woman who was a waitress at a Southern BBQ.  She got paid little and in cash so that she could avoid taxes and social security.  As a result she has no savings, no retirement, and no health care.  She has reluctantly relied on private hospitals for emergency care, hating to live off others.  She lives with her parents, shares a car, and does what she can as a single mother for her teenage children.  “I have it pretty good”, she told me.  I have a decent job, get paid well, have a roof over my head and caring parents.  She is ordinary, average, and mediocre; but has chosen to live without pretension or aspiration within her narrow world.  Flannery O’Connor put it this way:  “Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.”

There will always be two Americas – one that thinks, creates, innovates, and takes risks; and the other that punches the clock.  The twain shall never meet, and it is no problem that they don’t. Most Harvard graduates will contribute disproportionately to the economy whether in banking, finance, business, or tech, and this contribution will ultimately make the life of Joe the Plumber better.  Similarly, the work of Joe and his working class mates will provide the practical foundation for the thinkers and entrepreneurs.   The system is in balance.

A little empathy on both sides never hurts.  Few of the elite really understand the struggle to make ends meet, and the persistent optimism of the disadvantaged despite the odds.  Few of the working class understand the value of Harvard and Yale, the talent, insight, and optimism of their graduates.

The only real lesson here is to make better choices than Oprah Winfrey for Harvard Commencements.

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