Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mediocrity

A few minutes after my first-ever public talk as a graduate student (I was in the fifth or sixth month of my MA program), I overheard a senior doctoral candidate say, "that guy was pretty second-rate." I'm not particularly thick-skinned, but this bit of nastiness actually had the opposite of its intended effect. It gave me an immediate and enormous boost in my self-esteem, because I had been operating under the impression that I was third-rate at best. When I consider the historians who have occupied the first tier of my profession, say, for example, Will Durant, Barbara Tuchman, and Paul Fussell (and think about how those Olympians transcended all the silliness about "popular versus scholarly history"), it occurs to me that to be ranked second is to be elevated to stratospheric heights.

Academics sometimes flatter themselves that life in the ivory tower is exceptionally cut-throat — though no one admits to doing any actually cutting themselves — and there's even a famous quotation, attributed to Henry Kissinger, that seeks to account for the alleged vindictiveness of academic debate ("because there is so little at stake.") Having worked for nearly a decade in the private sector, my own perspective is that academic infighting is exceptional neither in volume nor in venom. If you really want to see the knives come out, try commission sales for a major retailer, volunteer as a referee for the local pee-wee sports team, or plan a church social with the ladies auxiliary (as a boy I sat patiently through one such planning session, and I can confirm that there is no gossip like small town gossip.)

It may be that office politics —of which academic mendaciousness is just a slightly more verbose variety — is part of the human condition, a residue of an evolutionary heritage that has taught us to stake out territory and defend it from outsiders. Biologically speaking, we're all about two hairs from being chimpanzees, after all, and it's a wonder we aren't pelting each other with bananas at this very moment. Unfortunately, those who attempt to defend or isolate themselves from the pettiness of it all can sometimes make themselves bigger targets. In my case, my own blundering efforts to stay above the fray in graduate school led to misunderstandings that I regret to this day.

On occasion, I've had colleagues who have successfully avoided the maliciousness of office politics, but such people are rare as rock stars. Looking back, it occurs to me that the two people I have in mind had certain common attributes. They liked themselves and took pleasure in their work; they neither claimed to be exceptional nor begrudged those who actually were, and they were therefore immune to the occasional barbs that were hurled their way. I don't mean to suggest that they were complacent (far from it), only that they saw no profit in the unkind estimation of others. In fact, both of them took great pleasure in meeting people who could do things that they could not, when a more typically human response is to resent others for their talents and successes. (As Gore Vidal is supposed to have said: it's not enough that I succeed - my friends must fail.)

As I approached my dissertation defense, the single most common piece of advice I was offered was this: whatever you do, never concede a point. Backed into corner, fight your way out, or try to make it look as though the corner is where you intended to be. I had been operating under the na├»ve assumption that the point of scholarship was to advance the frontiers of knowledge, however incrementally, and that errors should not merely be conceded but that one should be grateful for the fact that had been exposed. But so much of corporate life today — and I included academe here — considers admissions of error and genuine professions of modesty to be a sign not just of failure but of actual moral weakness.

A far better ethic was proposed by Socrates. Recall his famous dialogue with Meno, the Athenian yuppie who claimed to know the definition of virtue, and who was aghast that the great Socrates did not. What we remember today is not Meno's blustering assertion that he knew it all, but Socrates' avowal that uncertainty is the beginning of wisdom.

Consider, readers, how much harm has been caused by the incessant demand of self-help books and television's pseudo-therapists that we "be the best", when the real goal should be to do our best. "I don't accept mediocrity!" bellows a contestant on The Apprentice (which makes one wonder why he's on the show in the first place.) But why not? Shakespeare wrote that some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. All indications are that it is the same with mediocrity.

1 comment:

Graham Broad said...

This early update was brought to you by a sense of righteous indignation.