The Mediocrity Trap

There’s a worldwide conspiracy for the promotion of mediocrity and we are all co-conspirators: witting and unwitting.

Surprised?

You shouldn’t be. It’s all around us. You see it in large organizations that are risk averse and settle for how things have always been done. Mediocrity percolates through society and our politics. And we could even say that humans are predisposed toward mediocrity. Scholars such as Daniel Kahneman have shown the we suffer from loss aversion–our concern over losing $5 far outweighs our delight in gaining an equivalent amount of money. This loss aversion is said to make sense from an evolutionary perspective. It’s not good if your family on the savannah loses its only meal for the week because of an ambitious but ill-conceived campaign to capture a neighboring herd of buffalo.

But wait! Don’t we first need a definition of mediocrity? What do you mean by that word anyway? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines mediocre as:

Just acceptable but not good; not good enough

This seems like a good, common sense definition. But it needs a bit more scaffolding.  For the purposes of this blog we’ll be examining two types of mediocrity. First there’s the situation where people know they’re settling for not good enough. This could be the individual who decides not to apply for the better job because he’s not sure he can get it and/or doesn’t want to risk the disappointment. Or the person who doesn’t do her best in whatever field because she knows she can get by just fine doing her work at half speed. Or the person or group who just accepts no for an answer. We’ll call this explicit mediocrity.

The second type of mediocrity–implicit–is harder to spot and more controversial. But we would argue this type is also more dangerous and conspiratorial. These are activities that purport to be about achieving excellence. but actually, we will argue, won’t lead to goodness at all.  Some readers won’t be convinced by our arguments; but our hope is that we’ll make them think harder about the choices they make, or perhaps just lead them to realize they have a choice. Mediocrity should be a choice, not just something we fall into because of bad habits or sloppy thinking.

What we won’t do is engage in a campaign of negativity, criticizing everything we think is of bad quality or poorly executed. That would get tiresome quickly and not lead to positive outcomes. Piling on, we would argue, is a type of mediocrity.

Most important, we don’t intend to fall in love with the problem. After all, our most important goal is to identify how to fight back against the conspiracy to promote mediocrity. We will look for examples of individuals and groups who have not settled for good enough, who have not taken NO for an answer, and who have found ways to turn adverse conditions into more positive outcomes. Sharing these lessons will empower all of us who volunteer as foot soldiers in the battle to defeat mediocrity.

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