In search of mediocrity

When I was finishing at Oxford my annoyingly self-confident peers were pretending to agonise. Should they work as monstrously overpaid consultants, or… monstrously overpaid bankers?

Those whose greed inspired them towards the former would all ostentatiously refer to the dreaded In Search of Excellence. At the time, I wished I could find that book as exciting as they did – so that I could feel like I belonged. But some part of my stomach wasn’t having it. I hated that book. Decades on, I think I can justify my choice more easily, and enough’s been written about how un-excellent its thinking was.

There’s such a massive ego-trap in demanding excellence. After all, who would want to get caught arguing for mediocrity? But it seems to me we tend to forget who we’re dealing with: human beings. We come with all sorts of complexity, psychological luggage, unconscious urges, fabulously intricate biochemistry etc etc. The demand for ill-defined excellence easily becomes a platform for bullying and pomposity – and it’s often a cover for avoiding saying what it is exactly that we want.

So I had to love Matthew Yglesias post about frozen bagel king Murray Lender, under it’s heading: Lender’s Bagels and the Power of Mediocrity. Here’s a little of Yglesias’ argument:

The fundamental story of Lender’s Frozen Bagels is that the winning product isn’t always the best one. Like Ikea for furniture, H&M for clothing, or the Olive Garden for Italian food, Lender’s innovated by finding a way to compromise on quality and reap huge gains in other spheres. To an extent, it’s thankless work. Nobody wants to stand up and proudly proclaim, “I changed the world with my inferior products.” But often this is how the world changes. And if you look at the health care and higher education corners of the American economy where spiraling costs are bankrupting the middle class, you see sectors that are largely untouched by this kind of low-end innovation. The world could probably use a few more Murray Lenders.

There’s something in that, I think.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

2 thoughts on “In search of mediocrity

  1. earl Mardle


    Part of the problem is that the people who get to the top, who make decisions about the way the world is, or is supposed to be, are slightly psychopathic go-getters who assume that the rest of the world is like them.

    I keep seeing it in the claim that we have to configure the world so that :everyone can become the best that they are capable of being” in some field or another.

    They are wrong.

    Most of us would be perfectly happy being OK at a few things that enable us to live a relaxed, productive, engaged sort of life with pretty much enough of what we need to avoid misery.

    By setting up a situation where only those with sociopathic traits and psychologically damaging levels of need for praise, reinforcement and self esteem can participate, let alone succeed, we have constructed a place where most of us don’t really want to live but can’t see how to change.

    Endless studies have shown that, beyond a certain level of relative comfort and feeling of security, more, better, bigger, faster stuff doesn’t help, we quickly reach the law of diminishing returns.

    The addict who needs ever bigger shots of his toxin to get the old high is the poster boy for our current system. You old classmates were the carriers of the disease, it has been their relentless and often willful blindness to the reality for the rest of us that is killing all of us.

  2. Gavin Heaton

    I can still remember my initial shock on meeting someone who was happy just to come to work in a consulting firm and punch in and out. He did not take work home. Did not work late. But you know what? He was happy. And sometimes we forget that that is the real test of achievement.


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