Re: A Passion for Mediocrity

by The Inmate

In effect, corporate culture programmes are designed to deny or frustrate the development of conditions in which critical reflection is fostered.

. . . from the standpoint of the individual, the distancing of self from corporate values may be the preferred means of preserving and asserting self-identity.

—Hugh Willmott

In  A Passion for Excellence Tom Peters writes,

We are frequently asked if it is possible to ‘have it all’–a full and satisfying personal life and a full and satisfying, hard-working professional one.  Our answer is: No.  The price of excellence is time, energy, attention and focus, at the very same time that energy, attention and focus could have gone toward enjoying your daughter’s soccer game.  Excellence is a high-cost item.

Apparently so, besides, what is gained, particularly monetarily, by being a good parent or enjoying your child’s childhood?  If your children grow up loving you, if they become decent people it might hurt the economy by sending numerous psychologists into the construction business as gophers.  Wall Street doesn’t want that!

It is interesting that Peters is willing to separate one life into two: personal and professional.  I have never been asked this question: Can you have a fulfilling and satisfying life if you sacrifice your personal desires and relationships for a professional career?  My answer is: No.  Peters, along with Robert H. Waterman, is also responsible for the best-selling book, In Search of Excellence.   Peter F. Drucker, author of The Practice of Management, The Concept of the Corporation  and The Changing World of the Executive,  once described it as “a book for juveniles” which made me feel good because I attempted to read it for research purposes but found it so, soooo excellent that I believed reading it would damage my intellect.  Drucker once wrote, “The company is not and must never claim to be home, family, religion, life or fate for the individual.”  Peters, obviously, doesn’t believe this.  One of his cohorts in the corporate culture movement of the 1980’s is Richard Pascale, author of The Art of Japanese Management, Managing on the Edge  and an article entitled, “Fitting New Employees into the Company Culture.”  The latter was published in Fortune with this subheading:

Many of the best-managed companies in America are particularly skilled at getting recruits to adopt the corporate collection of shared values, beliefs, and practices as their own.  Here’s how they do it, and why indoctrination need not mean brainwashing.

Ironically, this appeared in 1984 and it makes no apologies for “indoctrination” techniques(which could easily be viewed as brainwashing techniques) used by corporations on new employees.  On the contrary, it celebrates them.  Here’s Pascale at his best(or worst):

The company subjects the newly hired individual to experiences calculated to induce humility and to make him question his prior behavior, beliefs and values.  By lessening the recruit’s comfort with himself, the company hopes to promote openness toward its own norms and values.[italics mine]

Isn’t that nice?  I wish I could hug Pascale like a boa constrictor might hug a good-sized, ignorant rodent.  Once employees are “indoctrinated” they do not need to be abused–they willingly, in a cult-like fashion, abuse themselves.  Consider Kevin Gammil, a Microsoft software development engineer, and his self-imposed plight as chronicled by Fred Moody.

He has been working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for so long that his supervisor has been pleading with him for weeks to take a day off.  He neither allows visitors in his office nor speaks to people on his rare trips outside it.

But who am I to judge the lifestyle of a stranger?  Maybe Gates is God and Gammil is paying proper homage.  Hugh Willmott correctly assessed techniques that promote this kind of behavior when he wrote: “the prescriptions of corporate culturists commend and legitimize the development of a technology of cultural control that is intended to yoke, in totalitarian fashion, the power of self-determination exclusively to the realization of corporate values.”  Hence, excellence is defined by the corporate world.  Hence, a culture of work that has difficulty measuring success without data, without facts, without a view to bank accounts, BMW’s and how many 16 hour days you have worked.

Corporations do not want people who know how to make judgments based upon their ability to synthesize knowledge with moral and ethical considerations, rather they want people who will look for a concrete standard to make judgments for them.  Well, hell, it’s just a lot easier that way and if the standard doesn’t fit the situation–just pretend it does.  Why think when you can act?  This is one of the major problems with bad management: an inability to take unique situations or problems and make good decisions.  Bad managers almost always go to printed company policy or to someone higher up the corporate ladder in those areas that require real thinking and real decision-making.  It is, however, a problem exacerbated by corporate culture itself.  The corporation does not hire people to think, even though it says it does, it hires people to obey.  Thank God for excellence.

Therefore, I propose a philosophy of mediocrity.  If the choice is between working the weekend or going to your son’s swim meet, well, choose the latter.  Be mediocre.  So you won’t get salesperson of the year with that outstanding letter of appreciation from someone you’ve never met or employee of the month with that really cool, desirable parking space, but you will see your son win or lose and you’ll be there to talk to him about it regardless of the outcome.  Why be an excellent employee when you can make the far superior choice to be a mediocre one?  Excellence makes no sense–especially to a six-year-old.

Unfortunately, mediocrity gets abused in the media.  Consider the car commercial that states by buying their car you take refuge from “mediocrity and compromise,” the insinuation being that mediocrity is a bad thing.  I’m going to change that image.  Think about it.  What does excellence promise?  Money, fame, power and fulfillment.  But what does it deliver?  Stress, tension at home, ass-kissing, heart problems, drug problems, sleep deprivation, eating problems and plaques on the wall that your relatives will mock and discard after Death collects her final payment–with interest.  Mediocrity, on the other hand, promises weekends with friends, time with family, a chance to contemplate the universe and the energy to pursue your passions.  Your spouse and your children might actually love you, might actually know you in a meaningful way.  Your kid might be able to say, “I see my parents all the time.  They’re great.”  You could finish writing that novel or building that sailboat.  That backpacking trip might become a reality, the art museum a monthly habit.  Of course, you’ll have to give up all that desirable excellence.  Well, so be it.  Mediocrity is a high-cost item.

works cited:

  • Drucker, Peter F., The Practice of Management,  Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, N.Y., 1954, pg. 387.
  • Tom Peters and Peter F. Drucker as  quoted in A Great Place to Work:  What Makes Some Employers So Good ( And Most So Bad),  by Robert Levering, Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 133-134, 120.
  • Moody, Fred, I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier,  Penguin Books USA Inc., New York, N.Y. pg. 2.
  • Willmott, Hugh, “Strength Is Ignorance; Slavery Is Freedom: Managing Culture In Modern Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies,  Vol. 30, Num 4, 1993, pp. 534, 537, 525-526.

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One Comment


Makes sense.

I believe excellence can only be achieved as a personal endeavour, and therefore in only a limited and focused set of actions. Academia, sports, philanthropy are some arenas where excellence are meaningful. Corporate? Lol, it’s a facade.

Mediocrity, then, is just an act of building a balanced life in an otherwise meaningless world.


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