The Dash for Mediocrity

SalieriI am fairly glad that the end of the week is nigh, and that the following Monday is a holiday in the United Kingdom. It has been a depressing five days, and the in-built languor of summer’s end was heightened by a conversation I had with my boss on Wednesday.

Company confidences forbid me from revealing too much detail about what was said, but I believe I can relate the conversation’s overall flavour. As we talked, there was a Swedish word that kept springing to mind: lagom. Lagom means “adequate” or “sufficient”; it is a unique Swedish virtue insofar as it relates to personal ambitions and acquiring wealth. The idea is that a country ought to be rich, but that wealth should be spread sufficiently around to discourage envy and forbid injustice.

However, I got the sense that my boss had somehow flunked a Swedish class and come away with a twisted meaning of the term. It was as if he took it to mean “meritorious mediocrity”. It’s all right to be average, to be just adequate, to simply make do. Worse, it’s all right just to copy others; being original, in the bossland variant of lagom, is dangerous, because no one else is doing it.

My perspective is rather different: if everyone else is doing it, then what makes you better? What is there to encourage people to remain loyal to you? What is there to protect you when an innovator does come along? Not much, in my view.

I’ve been through this before; in a previous job, I worked for a travel firm. The managing director wanted nothing better than to copy the market leader as closely as possible. I had to put a stop to several redesigns of our website intended to achieve this, as the recasting was likely to violate copyright. The innovations that I wanted to achieve, for example, developing technology so that one could book “non-linear” holidays (i.e., arriving and departing from a different destination), were put on hold. We had to be lagom, be like the others, nothing more.

It would be comforting if this condition was merely confined to technology; however as I can see in my daily struggles as a budding author, it appears lagom is creeping into other sectors. Doing something that does not adhere to an existing template of success, makes trying to land either an agent or a publisher particularly difficult. A note for those who starting out their careers in writing: if you want to make life easier for yourselves, find a successful author, and write a piece that is an extrapolation, continuation or lies in parallel. We have seen a lot of fiction promoted as being “the next Harry Potter” or the “next Dan Brown”: I’ve seen an example of the latter that was so carefully orchestrated that even the book cover looks like it is yet another in Dan Brown’s series. I’ve also seen stands in Waterstones bookstores that were designed to promote new books by mentioning their “relationship” to the Potter books.

So what’s wrong with being lagom? It is no recipe for survival; the reason why speaking to my boss was depressing was precisely because I had seen the consequences. The travel company I worked for was sold off, and has been bumping along the bottom ever since: as I feared at the time, there was no reason for people to go to a copy when they can get the original. There is nothing to bind visitors to my present company’s offering, if we don’t do something which makes us special in their eyes. Publishers are finding, I believe, that pushing something as a copy of Harry Potter only goes so far; it rarely achieves the geyser-like rush of something fresh. Grasping for certainty in mediocrity is pushing the law of diminishing returns to its utmost.

The continuing struggle of becoming and remaining original requires a different discipline: it means that there has to be a tolerance for failure, the development of patience, and the maintenance of a constant flow of new ideas. Western societies are having a problem with this, in general: perhaps we have been conditioned to the uniform flows of mass produced goods, and thus conformity is susceptible to being confused with quality. However, the diversity that an anti-lagom strategy provides means that companies, publishers and writers have a chance to develop particular niches, upon which their long-term survival can be based.

For example, a lot of firms are tackling the problem of green energy. Each appears to hope that their solution will be the “big answer”; however, their products appear to be a series of little answers, and each will have their own niche and use in producing carbon-free energy. For example, it was reported in the Economist that one firm has found a way of using solar energy, in combination with cobalt and phosphorous, to create hydrogen. Will this work in cars? No; however it shows promise in providing energy for buildings. Another firm has developed a bacteria which can turn waste into a form of crude oil; will this provide the answer for producing petrol in the future? No, because the bacteria work too slowly; furthermore, carbon emissions from continuing to burn oil are undesirable. However, this may provide a substitute for petrolchemicals that will be required in the future. General Motors has been trying different types of batteries for vehicles; will this answer all transportation problems? No, but it may take care of certain types of driver, for example, people who live in cities or suburbs, and thus drive short distances. Each has a role to play, a piece in the puzzle, and each company providing a solution can profit by playing a specialised role.

Diversity, originality and excellence creates a world of solutions, rather than a planet full of copycats. Yes, there is the possibility of failure: not all of the energy solutions, for example, will be either economically or environmentally viable. But copying others creates the potential, if not the certainty, for being an even larger debacle. In the 1990’s Sun Microsystems decided that their strategy insofar as its Solaris operating system was concerned, was to maintain its proprietary nature; this strategy copied Microsoft Windows, which the CEO Scott McNealy felt was a recipe for success. This allowed Sun to charge ridiculous amounts of money for software and hardware at the start of the internet revolution; however, the Linux and FreeBSD projects pushed forward by being different. The fact that they were Open Source meant they could benefit from being mutated into specialised distributions. Solaris was left in the dust; it was only made Open Source very late in the day, too late, in fact, to be useful to Sun, which is now only a shadow of what it once was.

Trying to be original instead of lagom can be frustrating and soul-destroying; it is definitely swimming against the tide. But at least it has logic in its favour: it was not being lagom that created the solutions that so many are willing to copy. Rather, it was courage, originality and fortitude, and acceptance a certain element of risk.

Those who continue to dwell in the lands of mediocrity are courting disaster. Becoming irrelevant is a dreadful fate; I cannot help but think of the end of the film “Amadeus”, in which the aged, insane and terribly average composer Salieri proclaims himself the “patron saint of mediocrities”, and thereafter is wheeled around an insane asylum, blessing the dissolution and madness around him. Thank God for this forthcoming weekend, because at least there is an opportunity in one’s own time to avoid staring this fate in the face and time to gather myself up to fight it again when I get back to work.

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  • Geoff

    Great post! I feel like mediocrity is to be found at every turn; wherever I go, there are more people just doing the same thing as everyone else. It truly breaks my heart to see it.

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