Thursday, May 15, 2008

To Mediocrity Or Not to Mediocrity, There Is No Try

When I look at the world today, I find a lot of people who accept less. They accept that the waiter will regularly mess up their order. They accept that the store clerk will not be able to help them find the product they want (let alone explain the differences between two similar models). I have certainly found myself expecting to be met with mediocre service so often that exemplary service openly surprises me. People who go out of their way to do a great job seem so very rare anymore. I find it all very unfortunate. None of my comments are to suggest that I am not just as guilty of being satisfied with just doing my job in many cases, but I have definitely been known to take pride in surprising people with my work ethic, the speed with which I serve them, or the quality of my work. I prefer to work hard over "punching in" most of the time, but I do not like to put in long hours for the sake of appearances. I want my time spent at the office to have meaning, otherwise I would just rather spend that time with my family and friends in personal pursuits.

I felt compelled to write this post after Julie's post on "walking out of stride" and Melissa's post about teachers who don't measure up. I am sure the thoughts from the funeral mentioned in my Home Again post also have a bearing on where this post is headed. Simply put, I am tired of hearing the words "that will never happen" or "that's just the way of things" in reference to how far the world has gone into accepting inadequacies and mediocrity from leaders, from governments, from businesses, and from individuals. Why can't things get better? Why can't I expect my order at a fast food restaurant to be timely and accurate? Why can't I expect tech support that is actually helpful? Why can't I expect Hollywood to come up with an original movie that is both entertaining and family friendly? Why can't I expect the government to start managing spending wisely instead of simply bleeding more and more Americans dry? That list can go on forever, and that's exactly my point. We have grown accustomed to mistreatment from, or at least inadequacies of those who we come in contact with.

Where do I believe a lot of these concessions originate? I think a lot of them come right out of the feel-good movement in education and government. Students are all supposed to feel good about themselves and their work because we don't want bad grades to cause them stress or embarassment. We don't want people to feel like America has left them out, so we make sure they get a lot of the benefits they want, regardless of whether they're contributing to society. Our culture is built on mitigating suffering and struggle. Sometimes struggling can be the very best thing for a person. I can't count the number of millionaires (or even billionaires) whose life stories point out how important a failing grade or a failed venture was to their eventual success. By realizing they needed to step up their effort to measure up in the world, they began to adapt and grow. If we spend so much time trying to pad the landing of a student while they're coming up, then that child will be shocked when the world slaps him in the face.

As I explain to people when they observe me ignoring (or responding without providing any benefits) a tantrum from my children, I would rather they learn now that they can't have everything they want just because they want it so I'm not standing at a car dealership listening to a whining sixteen year-old saying "But Dad, why can't I have the BMW?" Likewise, I don't automatically accept that my children's success in a small measure is the end of their effort. What if they did the first problems on all their tests in school really well and turned them in? I know what happened to me when I didn't notice the backside of my first quiz on a college campus. I got a failing grade. That grade helped me focus my attention, and I still made an A in the class. If the teacher had said, "That's okay, don't worry about it." and then let me slide by, I might not have worked as hard to assure my success in that class. I want to raise my children to understand they can be whatever they want, but their efforts have to follow those desires or those wants are simply pipe dreams.

As they said in Remember the Titans, "Attitude reflects leadership." I for one want to lead my children by showing them they should work hard, do their best, and seek out opportunities to learn. I also expect them to learn that going beyond the classroom assignment, beyond the job description, and beyond the call of duty will get them a lot farther in life than simply towing the line ever will. If more people would get back to expecting more from each other, maybe this country and this world would begin to repair a lot of its own problems.

-- Robert

Title explanation: For anyone who thinks the title is silly, well, at least you're not accepting mediocrity from me. I mixed a little Shakespeare (To be or not to be) with a touch of Yoda (Do or do not, there is no try) to come up with my ridiculous title for this post.


Suki said...

Can't help relating this to the unending struggle between the two extremes - capitalism and socialism.
It requires a shitload of strength to take the lessons from failure, move on and actually do something great. Most people lack that strength, at least the people I see around me. So what do you do - cater to the exceptions, or the majority? Law of the jungle, or law of the herd?

Robert said...

Strangely, the answer in today's society seems to be "Yes", as in "let's cater to both." I don't think it's wise to try and satisfy everyone because it irritates most and pleases almost no one.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa said...

Great post!

I've had issues with this topic lately, as you well know, and it's driving me batty. My elder child is even saying stuff like "it's good enough for the teacher", even though I can see it is not quality work. GAAAK!

As for the title...when I read your explanation, all I could think about was "What would Scooby do?" Not sure why. Probably has to do with lack of sleep. :)

Robert said...

Thanks for the comments. I definitely hated that comment from fellow students in school, at least as bad as "Well, that's what my calculator said, so you need to check your work." It never entered their minds they might've misentered data, but of course I was wrong just because I could actually do the math in my head.

Julie Pippert said...

A lady named Eileen came back to that post that motivated this one for you. She commented to me and to some of the commenters. It was an intriguing point, the one she made.

I think if I see that someone is trying his or her best---even if it is mediocre results---I do accept it.

Standards. So hard to nail down.

Eileen made a good call on how I feel about the demand for exceptional (Gwen's written well about it too):

"You can strive, and you may still not succeed. It is an American exceptionalism that makes us all think we can succeed at whatever we try. It's not true.

I have a tin ear. I will never succeed at music. All the music lessons I took as a child didn't help. My mother was a musician, she wanted me to be one. My talent is in the visual arts."

Service jobs are usually stopgaps. rarely will they be someone's true talent; I honestly think service is one of those gifts, like teaching, or writing, or singing.

What's exceptional is when we find and follow our gifts.

That's also when we do our best.

But the bar is always moving, right?

Robert said...

Indeed, the bar is always moving. Talents can be developed, though in the case of being tone deaf music may not be a skill that can come no matter how hard one works. Then again, one of the greatest composers in history was deaf. Yes, he wasn't deaf from birth, but still.

I think you begin to see where I'm coming from, though. I've spent too much time around people who not only accept mediocrity but seem to expect it. Reaching beyond is not only foreign but a negative event. Such thinking is tragic to me. I say this as a person who is proud of two of my friends who went to work for Walmart ten and twelve years ago (different times) and are quite happy to continue doing so to this day. I don't think it's bad to choose a career that meets an end and then do whatever you want on the side. What's sad is when someone takes a career simply because they "fall" to it. Right now, I am wondering if I am not the pot calling the kettle black (looking ahead to my post from the days that follow this one).