Praising Mediocrity

I went to breakfast with the company president not too long ago. I know that sounds like a BFD, but actually I work for a pretty small company now, and their culture is a lot different than the usual corporate gig. They want you to wear whatever you’re comfortable wearing. This means you will see anything from jeans to sweats. Here’s what you won’t see: suits. This means I have several snazzy suits that are now collecting dust in the closet. I hear you will be the object of ridicule if you show up wearing one, so I haven’t dared.

They have a lot of policies like that—I’m still getting used to it, actually. The president emailed me to set a time and date. I had seen him around but first felt unsure about his first name. It seems that every male co-worker has a monosyllabic name. If it had more than one syllable, of course it was shortened to a nickname. The president’s name is no different. I could have said Hi TomGlenNedDanWayneBobJimAl*, and gotten to it that way, but I wanted to make sure I was right first. So he would say “Hi GRC” and I would plaster on a frozen smile and reply, “Hi!” How rude is that? It’s like the Seinfeld episode where Jerry forgets his girlfriend’s name (Except this one doesn’t rhyme with a piece of anatomy, luckily).

We were at breakfast for an hour and a half. I can’t believe how the time flew. Mostly we discussed my background, my interests, and ideas I had for the company. At one point, he told me how torn he is between balancing growth and maintaining a great company. At some level, the more people you hire, the bigger chance there is that it will slide towards mediocre. He stared dead at me and said “I hate mediocrity.” I wished I had told him how much he would have hated it at West Point. As a cadet you are labeled as “the best and the brightest,” but it’s actually mediocrity that gets you through. You are bombarded with so many tasks, some big, and some small, that it’s unlikely that you will excel at any one thing unless you are inclined to do so. I am guessing he didn’t see my transcript because that piece of paper shouts mediocrity from the rooftops. You have to be pretty good to get in, but you have to be mediocre to get through. If you fail every one of your English courses, it won’t matter that you got an A in Thermodynamics, you’re getting the boot, pal. You could have a 4.0 grade point average, but if you don’t pass the IOCT, you can forget about graduating. The entire four years was a balancing act which involved knowing how to do everything just well enough for the sum total to result in a diploma.

Most of the time I resented this. I felt like I spent four years sucking at everything, which wasn’t quite the confidence boost I needed. I still feel like I’m a square peg trying to get by in a round world. I didn’t share any of this with him.

He is a young guy—just over 40 from what I gathered, and in charge of an entire company. That seems like such a huge accomplishment (and he managed to mention that once upon a time he was the president of a company 7 times bigger than ours). It seems like—wow, but then I thought about it. In the Army, it’s not unheard of for a 40 year old lieutenant colonel to be in charge of that many people. Once you leave there, you get used to a different set of standards. The hardest job I ever had was also the lowest paying one (if you don’t count my stint as a library page in high school). I was a second lieutenant in charge of a Patriot Missile Platoon. You won’t find many people in their really early 20’s in charge of 30 people and millions of dollars (said in my best Robin Leach accent)of stuff. It’s not that most people aren’t capable, it’s just that there isn’t enough room for everyone to be the boss, and not everyone wants to be the boss.

It was a good** meeting. He offered some unorthodox ideas (“What if I offered every new employee $10K to walk away if they don’t like the job three months in?”) and it seemed like he actually listened to what I had to say. I totally get his struggle with avoiding mediocrity, but it seems like this world is geared towards averages, and good enough solutions and telling us that it’s okay to not be perfectionists as long as you get the job done. The funny thing is, I am generally okay with being mediocre until you get to something I truly put everything into. Only then will I agonize over the details, which means I never actually finish what I’m doing. If I could be mediocre there, even just a little bit, I’d be better off.
*Actual names of coworkers
**good=epitome of a mediocre word, and the runner up is "nice"

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