25 August 2016

Keep mediocrity at bay

An article entitled How to be mediocre and be happy with yourself  on the BBC News website caught my eye, partly because I had been discussing mediocrity only a few days earlier. That was in the context of whether I am a perfectionist, which I am pretty sure I am not, preferring spontaneity, authenticity and conviction to perfection. That only means, I think, that I wouldn't say perfection was the most important thing to seek - it might well be achieved while chasing other goals. But one thing I really don't like is mediocrity.

I don't think that I recognise much of what is discussed in the article as mediocrity. It seems to be more about ordinariness, some of it about disorganisation, some of it about the rejection of the demands of excellence and efficiency in favour of la dolce vita (Italy being held out as a paradigm case of mediocrity, it seems, although my paraphrasing might leave something to be desired) and to my mind those are not the same things. There's noting really wrong with the ordinary (although it can get boring if you have too much of it). I think Italy proves that you can create a lot of excellence without having to spend every waking moment striving for it.

I don't presume to say that never I produce anything mediocre. I'm sure this blog demonstrates that. But I try not to, although I'm not sure everyone else tries similarly. There's often a sense that mediocrity is good enough. I'm reading the latest Alexander McCall Smith book (well, it was the latest one when I started it, but that's  not a distinction that can last for long in his oeuvre) and was amazed to find an erratum slip apologising for the fact that all words ending in "-ize" (and I think words containing that string) had been automatically changed to "-ise". A computer was blamed, but in fact it seems to me to be a colossal failure of proof-reading. I suppose the only viable way to deal with the error was to issue the faulty copies with an addendum slip - it would be horribly expensive and time-consuming to pulp the entire print run and make thousands of new books. The result, I think, could rightly be called mediocre.

I've encountered mediocrity in other books, too - and I think I have already written about examples. Typographical errors, grammatical and stylistic howlers (why can no-one execute a simple parallel construction?), fact-checking failures (sewerage is not discharged into the sea, Greek is not written in Cyrillic) - my potential enjoyment of a book can be destroyed at a stroke.

I have encountered many fellow-lawyers who are content to be mediocre, too. Because the practice of law is no longer always concerned with a deep understanding of the subject but often with making the largest possible profit, competence is actually devalued. A former colleague could bill many, many more hours than I ever did because it took him so long to overcome his incompetence. (Which reminds me of a "credits" box we - to be precise, Nick Draper - once put in The Warwick Boar, sometime in the mid-1970s, listing people who had assisted in the production of the paper and adding that the process had been hindered by "incompatense".) I'm not sure that mediocrity is rewarded very often, although time-based billing does tend to have that effect, but it certainly isn't opposed and rooted out wherever it rears its ugly head. Perhaps it's the rejection of "elitism" which promotes mediocrity, though the better response to elitism is surely to celebrate everyone's authentic and committed achievement (another topic about which I have written before).

Yesterday I spent the hottest afternoon of the year in a basement room in the office of a firm of solicitors, presenting an update on data protection law. I hope the result was not mediocre. I worried for years that I delivered mediocre courses, and I have no doubt that sometimes they were just that. Then someone revealed to me, on the eve of a course that I feared was going to turn out mediocre, that some 20 years previously my lecturing had actually been very good. My confidence was suffering a bit before my data protection talk - given the subject, who could be surprised? - but by a happy coincidence my memory of that watershed moment received a prompt shortly before I had to perform. I might not be perfect, but perhaps if I have the stars I shouldn't ask for the moon.

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