From Ivy League scholars to country presidents, mediocrity permeates society’s highest echelons. Indeed, we remain defenseless against it in the 21st century. We are hard at work battling world financial crises, poverty and social inequality even as we produce mediocre leaders who proliferate populist, symptomatic, efficient but not effective “solutions” to these and other pressing issues. Democracy itself, the most advanced social construct to date, is no match for mediocrity. I propose keeping mediocrity in check is a much more effective way to go about our world’s progress. We would first need to understand how it evades society’s filters.
For years I kept pondering the mystery of the disconnect between talent and success. I feel now much closer to exposing why the uninspiring continue to attain fame and glory even as the talented struggle in anonymity. In short, society’s governance models are dominated by the “causality-credo”, a belief in the “if-then” supremacy that characterizes computer programs. If (you do this) then (we reward you that) reflex encourages human normalization favoring mediocrity. The highest instantiation of human talent, creativeness, is severely discouraged or even punished by the if-then paradigm. In institutions with “clear” rules for getting ahead, which by the way include democratic elections, mediocrity rises to the top because creatives are less reliable in checking boxes; they are more interested in forging the future. Creativity drives one to curiosity leaving the uninspired to grudgingly work out the intricate but determinate rules for getting ahead. By spelling out rules for promoting competence that are too precise we serve the persevering incompetents. That isn’t to say that rules should be discarded in favor of chaos. There is a middle ground. Take for example the U.S. Constitution, a highly effective guideline for organizing a country that doesn’t rely at all on if-then statements. Reduce the U.S. Constitution to a collection of if-then prescriptions and we turn it into a brittle regulatory document, unable to absorb future uncertainty.
While most of us are busy checking boxes to secure our livelihood, we do take time to celebrate the lone creative. Steve Jobs is hailed by the masses as a genius, and rightfully so. What bothers me is that Steve Jobs is accepted as an outlier. I am convinced there are many individuals just as or even more inspired than Steve Jobs on this planet at this very time. I met some of them in obscure places, making up in passion what they lack in accolades and titles. But they remain anonymous, lacking the leverage to accelerate our society towards prosperity. I for one think we should celebrate Steve Jobs for his unique ability to eventually overcome the “causality-credo” that had him removed from his own creation, Apple. Should we do away with if-then reward systems, we may well see thousands of Steve Jobs-like visionaries rising through the ranks to propel us forward. It would and could indeed be a better world.
Let me end with a quotation from Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Future of Architecture – “a gentleman no longer chosen and privileged by autocratic power he must rise from the masses by inherent virtue. His qualities as a man will give him title and keep it for him. Individual conscience will rule his social acts. By love of quality as against quantity he will choose his way through life. He will learn to know the difference between the curious and the beautiful. Truth will be a divinity to him. As his gentlehood cannot be conferred, so it may not be inherited. This gentleman of democracy will be found in any honest occupation at any level of fortune, loving beauty, doing his best and being kind […] Only by the growth and exercise of individual conscience does the man earn or deserve his ‘rights.’ Democracy is the opposite of totalitarianism, communism, fascism or mobocracy. But democracy is constantly in danger from mobocracy-rising tide of as yet unqualified herd-instinct. Mechanized mediocrity. The conditioned mind instead of the enlightened mind.”