A common gripe of ambitious people is the oppressive culture of mediocrity that almost everyone experiences at work: boring tasks, low standards, risk aversion, no appetite for excellence, and little chance to advance. The question is often asked: where does all this mediocrity come from? Obviously, there are organizational forces– risk-aversion, subordination, seniority– that give it an advantage, but what might be an individual-level root cause that brings it into existence in the first place? What makes people preternaturally tolerant of mediocrity, to such a degree that large organizations converge to it? Is it just that “most people are mediocre”? Certainly, anyone can become complacent and mediocre, given sufficient reward and comfort, but I don’t think it’s a natural tendency of humans. In fact, I believe it leaves us dissatisfied and, over the long run, disgusted with working life.
Something I’ve learned over the years about the difference between mediocrity and excellence is that the former is focused on ”being” and what one is, while the latter is about doing and what one creates or provides. Mediocrity wants to be attractive or important or socially well-connected. Excellence wants to create something attractive or perform an important job. Mediocrity wants to “be smart” and for everyone to know it. Excellence wants to do smart things. Mediocrity wants to be well-liked. Excellence wants to create things worth liking. Mediocrity wants to be one of the great writers. Excellence wants to write great works. People who want to hold positions, acquire esteem, and position their asses in specific comfortable chairs tend to be mediocre, risk-averse, and generally useless. The ones who excel are those who go out with the direct goal of achieving something.
The mediocrity I’ve described above is the essence of careerism: acquiring credibility, grabbing titles, and taking credit. What’s dangerous about this brand of mediocrity is that, in many ways, it looks like excellence. It is ambitious, just toward different ends. Like junk internet, it feels like real work is getting done. In fact, this variety of mediocrity is not only socially acceptable but drilled into children from a young age. It’s not “save lives and heal the sick” that many hear growing up, but “become a doctor”.
This leads naturally to an entitlement mentality, for what is a title but a privilege of being? Viscount isn’t something you do. It’s something you are, either by birth or by favor. Upper-tier corporate titles are similar, except with “by favor” being common because it must at least look like a meritocracy when, in truth, the proteges and winners have been picked at birth.
Corporations tend to be risk-averse and pathological, to such a degree that opportunities to excel are rare, and therefore become desirable. Thus, they’re allocated as a political favor. To whom? To people who are well-liked and have the finest titles. To do something great in a corporate context– to even have the permission to use your own time in such a pursuit– one first has to be something: well-titled, senior, “credible”. You can’t just roll up your sleeves and do something useful and important, lest you be chastised for taking time away from your assigned work. It’s ridiculous! Is it any wonder that our society has such a pervasive mentality of entitlement? When being something must occur before doing anything, there is no other way for people to react.
As I get older, I’m increasingly negative on the whole concept of careerism, because it makes being reputable (demonstrated through job titles) a prerequisite for doing something useful, and thereby generates a culture of entitled mediocrity, because its priorities lead naturally that way. What looks like ambition is actually a thin veneer over degenerate, worthless social climbing. Once people are steeped in this culture for long enough, they’re too far gone and real ambition has been drained from them forever.
This, I think, is Corporate America’s downfall. In this emasculated society, almost no one wants to do any real work– or to let anyone else do real work– because that’s not what gets rewarded, and to do anything that’s actually useful, one has to be something (in the eyes of others) first. This means that the doers who remain tend to be the ones who are willing to invest years in the soul-sucking social climbing and campaigning required to get there, and the macroscopic result of this is adverse selection in organizational leadership. Over time, this leaves organizations unable to adapt or thrive, but it takes decades for that process to run its course.
What’s the way out? Open allocation. In a closed-allocation dinosaur company, vicious political fights ensue about who gets to be “on” desirable projects. People lose sight of what they can actually do for the company, distracted by the perpetual cold war surrounding who gets to be on what team. You don’t have this nonsense in an open-allocation company. You just have people getting together to get something important done. The way out is to remove the matrix of entitlement, decisively and radically. That, and probably that alone, will evade the otherwise inevitable culture of mediocrity that characterizes most companies.