Ambition and Mediocrity

Via the ZMan, I found this article by Theodore Dalrymple, a section of which resonated with me:

Ambition is likewise a quality that is excellent when it attaches to something worthwhile in itself, but which is dreadful when it does not. And the rapid and phenomenal spread of education has increased the spread of ambition with it, much of it inevitably of the apparatchik type, that is to say the determination to climb some bureaucratic career ladder detached from any purpose except survival and, if possible, self-aggrandizement. To climb such a ladder you have to be both ruthless and submissive at the same time. You have to be egotistically prepared to stab people in the back in the scramble for advancement, while at the same time being prepared to suppress your own personality by uttering other people’s clichés at the expense of your own thoughts. Unpreparedness to do this, either through lack of training or moral scruple, unfits you for a career in the organization, any organization. You have to learn to lie with clichés, and do so with a straight face.

This is one of the reasons why I think bright young men will avoid working in large organisations in future. They will simply cease to become places where anything tangible gets done. I liked this, too:

There is much to be said in favor of mediocrity, of course. Without mediocrity, there could be no excellence. We cannot always be living on the heights of Mount Olympus, and surely even the most fastidiously intellectual person has found pleasure or relief in curling up with a second-rate detective story (Wittgenstein did so, besides which there is something to be learned from every book ever written). I have derived much comfort from mediocrity, my own included, and it is my experience that, for a variety of reasons, the greatest experts in their field may make poor witnesses. A person of mediocre accomplishment is often better.

Mediocrity is not a problem in itself; it is inevitable. Indeed the world needs many mediocrities, that is to say mediocrities who know themselves, and are perfectly content, to be such (complacency is as much an underestimated quality as rebelliousness is an overestimated one).

Almost 7 years ago I wrote something similar:

Far too much recruitment of youngsters by certain oil majors is done on personality instead of competence (whereas the older guys are recruited on length of tooth alone).  If they see you are a super-bright born leader who speaks four languages and played hockey for your country at university level, you’re in.  If you’re a plodder who has found himself in unglamorous, shit locations on shit projects but hung in there and made the best of it, they don’t want to know. I’m a plodder, who has been in many an unglamorous, shit location on a shit project. In fact, that’s pretty much all I’ve known.  I’m no high-flyer and I’ll not reach the top in any organisation. I gob-off too much for that, and am pretty skilled in saying things to people which are wholly inappropriate (in my defence, this is always when faced with blinding incompetence, laziness, dishonesty, or any combination thereof). But I can dig out blind and get stuff done in pretty much any circumstances, and that – as I am proving now – is of considerable value to an oil company.

Not much has changed, has it? If anything, it’s got a whole lot worse. Now they’re not even interested in the super-bright person who can speak four languages, all they want to know is you’ll be 100% on-message and you tick the right diversity boxes.


29 thoughts on “Ambition and Mediocrity

  1. “it is my experience that, for a variety of reasons, the greatest experts in their field may make poor witnesses. A person of mediocre accomplishment is often better”.

    There’s a similar phenomenon which I have often observed in education and training. The basketball coach in a college where I worked back in the ’90s befriended a professional player in America, and brought him back to England to teach his skills to our distinctly mediocre students. As a professional, this guy had truly amazing skills – like the Harlem Globetrotters players. Everyone who watched him, and especially those who knew about the game, were left open-mouthed with amazement. But he simply could not teach, or even explain what he was doing. For him, it was simply “natural”, and he had no idea about breaking skills and routines down into simpler components, or gauging the abilities of those he taught. He could demonstrate, and that’s all, so his trip to our college turned out to be an expensive failure.

    I’ve seen it, albeit to a lesser degree, in many other teaching situations. The very best at what they do are often poor communicators, and I preferred working with lesser talents who had more of an interest in people rather than their own skills.

  2. How to annoy a snowflake:-

    In MY final year I applied for 12 jobs and was offered 14.

    Personally I don’t think I could be happy without a fair bit of autonomy at work. You used to be able to get that in the universities and in some of the professions e.g. medicine. In both it’s much impaired now. Also in my day I found I could get a fair bit in junior enough jobs in industry. True the project is presented to you, but I found that on my shoulders fell the burden of working out how to do it – subject to persuading my boss that I was being reasonable, of course.

    What would I study if I were young? Does autonomy survive in vet medicine? In Law? In some sorts of IT jobs? Hell if you are happy to be ordered about why not join the army? At least you’ll get to fly helicopters or whatever. And I’ll bet they can’t sack you if you say you’re a tranny.

  3. I’m in marine engineering right now. Well, electrical engineering, which really means I can go into any damn industry I want right now as they’re all thinking electrification is going to save the planet

    So I’m at a crossroads. I’m nearing the end of this placement, I’ve been with the same company 7 years since I graduated, and I’m turning 30 this year. Options time:

    1) Fling myself completely into the corporate exec ladder game by jumping the rungs. Back to academia, do an MBA, and ensure the right people hear the right things whilst I make them look good and toe the line without actually needing to do anything useful. I’ve done this before, have never gained any satisfaction when I’ve done so, and so far I’ve managed to get through my career without any backstabbing. The hypocrisy rises as the space on the pyramid decreases though, and there is a lot in this post that just resonates far too much.

    2) Get a middle management role. This is what all my ‘career mentors’ state is best for me. (They’re all over 50 and are all middle managers with 20-year service awards themselves). Do I really want this job for life? The fact that this is the next logical step that my CV gets me depresses me greatly. I don’t have ties, I have no current wish for stability, but I could walk into a job like this tomorrow with my eyes closed. It’s the laziest option.

    3) Do some satisfying engineering for a change. Plodding, as Tim calls it. Take a difficult project no one else can be bothered with and wrestle it to success. Done this before too. Accept the salary knowing full well you’ll be hearing the same excuses you’ve been giving your own team when it comes to advancement in the next couple of years because corporate HR has your manager hamstrung (Because of a type-1 MBA’s say-so). On the other hand, there’s potentially job satisfaction there.

    4) Leave. Try something new. I’ve got a financial safety net available to me as I’ve not spent any money in the past 2 years. Not a lot to spend it on here in India. Leave the corporate life and do something else, join a startup, run a business, consult. Take a risk while there are still limited downsides and years to recover.

    I get the feeling I’m one of the younger ones here. Thus I’m going to try and glean some advice from you cynical lot and attempt to listen to the voice of experience. What advice would you have given yourselves in your late 20s?

  4. On dearieme’s point, you get autonomy if the modern job description states “must be capable of dealing with ambiguity”
    Sure sign there is no documentation, procedures or that anyone else has a clue how to do it – it’ll be down to you.

  5. The management mediocrity with vaulting ambition is a recognisable type. S/he arrives in an organisation and proceeds roughly as follows:-
    1. Demands staff provide lots of information that is readily available elsewhere in the organisation. (Anyone who points this out is a marked wo/man.)
    2. Hires management consultants or conducts an internal review
    3. Announces major reorganisation – often just before Christmas, in the hope that some people will leave in the meantime – with “programme of cultural change”, in which everyone will have apply for the newly designed posts.
    4. Asks the power-skirts in HR to deliver an assessment centre with psychometric testing etc that will weed out 90% of the existing staff.
    5. Replaces key staff with his/her own appointments, who s/he believes will be loyal and biddable.
    6. Explains resulting inefficiencies as the inevitable price of the necessary reorganisation, when it’s simply the predictable loss of organisational memory.
    7. Explains the necessary changes will take time to bed in, and will have to be tweaked (ie returned to something closer to what they were).
    8. Announces departure for more high-powered post…
    9. Rinse and repeat.

  6. Regarding the “experts make shit teachers” theme, a good example is the French exam to become a ski instructor. It boils down to being able to ski a course in almost the same time as a downhill professional skier.

    How, do you ask, does that qualify them to teach skiing to beginners and nervous intermediates? Of course it doesn’t.

  7. One of the great skills missed out above (for the corporate climber) is shamelessly taking credit for other people’s work.

  8. One of the great skills missed out above (for the corporate climber) is shamelessly taking credit for other people’s work.

  9. @bloke in India,

    It’s very different for you than us oldies; you’ve got the gender politics to contend with, and probably will have for another decade until we all wake up.

    I’d still consider the corporate career but put some thought into where and when you might need to jump off and be your own boss.

    Women leaders who are in position due to quotas not merit (and no, I’m not suggesting that’s all of them) will still need competent “do-ers” but there will be fewer of them around as the 50% rule permeates. Maybe be a freelancer doing something very tangible and measurable, get in, do the job, move on?

  10. A thirty year old of my acquaintance threw in corporate life and joined a start-up. He originally claimed it was because of hopes of a big capital gain in a few years time. But as far as I can see he’s plain enjoying it more – no suffocating layers of dull middle managers to impede his every effort. He’s got a fair bit of autonomy; he obviously finds the responsibilities on his shoulders invigorating.

    I think responsibilities are just fine as long as you also have the authority necessary to carry them off.

  11. Speaking from mostly bitter experience.

    The last paragraph in Dalrymples article pretty much nails 99% of those working at Director/Managing Director level in large organisations and is a slam dunk for describing the sociopaths who make partner in the big 4.

  12. Go work for a small engineering business. There isn’t room in one for idiots, HR quotas, or even a HR department.
    You also generally rise to the level of your own incompetence fairly quickly, which means if you’ve half a brain you tend to get a good deal of freedom – I’m now 30, I’ve worked for my current bunch of bandits for 5 years, and have grown from the newbie on the shop floor to the point where I’m responsible for 50% of the day to day running. My employers are lunatics, but it’s not unenjoyable, and at some point I’ll probably go it alone in the same industry, based on the experience and contact book I’m currently gaining…

  13. BiI

    I am almost 40 and I sometimes wish that I had worked a lot harder and made more money in my twenties. Do not underestimate the improvement jn your quality of life from some measure of financial independence. Having a house with a manageable mortgage at 35 is a whole lot more valuable than memories of exotic travel and drinking in night clubs. I did not really do the mythical twenties thing and pretty much wasted a lot of my spare time. If that does not describe you then perhaps a different approach is better.

  14. @morsjon,

    “Having a house with a manageable mortgage at 35 is a whole lot more valuable than memories of exotic travel and drinking in night clubs.“

    I think we will have to disagree on that one. I doubt anyone lays in their death bed wishing they’d spent more time paying off debt rather than having unique experiences.

  15. Theophrastus,

    “6. Explains resulting inefficiencies as the inevitable price of the necessary reorganisation, when it’s simply the predictable loss of organisational memory.

    Yes! So much this. I survived three go rounds of “reorganisations” in the same organisation and this was exactly the result.

  16. BiI

    Catch a grip, you can’t go asking folk on t’internet about the next steps in your life.

    But since you did I would go for the most highly paid ball tearing career path that you could find.

  17. BiI
    As Andy in Japan said, consider option 4. Be bold.

    My daughter and son-in-law (in their early forties) both work on a contract basis in the UK, generally stints of between 6 and 24 months. There are good financial returns and no need for sharp elbows or forked tongue to climb the greasy pole internally. They contract at the outset to join the organisation at the appropriate level (these days director), with the requisite authority to do the job they’re contracted to do (and their way). Then at the end of the contract period they can often renew if they like the place, or move on and up.

    There are agencies which specialise in this type of (contractor) placement. btw, it’s a bit different from consulting in that one is employed by the company, not an external consultancy with all the baggage that being referred to as ‘a suit’ which that entails.

  18. Bloke in India – you haven’t mentioned what you want to do. Perhaps it is not covered by the options you list.

  19. I left big organisation just after 30, with my CEng. Did a bit of small company stuff, then leading a specialist team in another big company (nobody understood what We were doing well enough to tell us what to do. Results only. But the usual HR interference in managing my team.)

    I now work for myself – own a small company. Nice portfolio of clients and some longer consulting gigs.

    Personally, I’d recommend it, especially if you have a bit of financial security and can get one medium term job to get yourself stable with.

  20. Bloke in India,

    I’m in a very similar position to you, but I’m almost 41. For the past 10 years I’ve been doing a mixture of 2 and 3, but now I am seriously looking at 4. Having the financial safety net under me is a big factor in this: it’s a lot harder to do with a crippling mortgage and two kids under ten.

  21. Take risks early (less obligations in life) or late (after you’ve built up a cushion). Doing it in the middle is usually more stressful.

    People have different thresholds for career risk, and it can be very painful if you get it wrong, but I’d always encourage people to take risk at some point in their lives to a level they can cope with.

    Money is very important- it buys you choices both in work and in life. It will never fully satisfy you as your expectations rise with income, but (crudely) the first 500k is worth huge amounts in terms of security, the second 500k in terms of comfort, and the third 500k in terms of luxury.

    You can typically chase money and then fall back on job satisfaction when you reach the limit of your ability/luck/enthusiasm for brown-nosing. It’s much harder the other way around.

    Finally, unless you have a true vocation or opportunity for a legacy (and 90% of us don’t ) then over time you will probably value family and relationships more than work.

    Be honest with yourself about money/job satisfaction/work-life balance compromises. We all make them, so it’s best to recognise it in our choices. Also realise you probably have 30-40 years (and maybe more than one career) ahead so the timing and order you do things in can help you.

  22. @BiI

    I found for me there were two important psychological crossing points, quite closely related to what Oblong listed.

    (A) When average post-tax investment returns exceed average expenditure requirements,
    (B) When average post-tax investment returns exceed average post-tax earned income.

    I suspect for most people the two often happen in fairly close succession. I’ve repeated “post-tax” a lot but that’s because, if you ask someone how much they get paid, 95% of people tell you the pre-tax figure, which is frankly bonkers.

    My experience was that these crossing points radically reshaped the way I felt about work, or more grandly, my “career”. It changed how many more years I wanted to work for, how many hours per week I wanted to work for, who I wanted to work for, how much pay I was prepared to work for, where I wanted to work and the extent I was prepared to move home around or regularly travel for work, and the work-life balance more generally.

    Perhaps the biggest change was re-evaluating what ultimate objective I set myself as a result of my work – other folk have mentioned “legacy” and how little chance most mortals have of it, while idealists might go for “helping others” or classical hedonists might opt for “enjoyable sense of challenge and achievement”. See also Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, which is worth pondering for any activity you intend to spend more than 5-10% of your waking time on! If you’re chasing Oblong’s “ladder of 500s” (and I think he has the figures about right though wonder if the final step should be an extra million) then it might still just be money that is the goal, but at least you’ve got a better-quantified idea of what you’re working for.

    Anyway, if you’re near to either (A) or (B) you might want to hold off from making any major decision and concentrate on ticking one or both of them off first, in case the perspective-shift catches you out afterwards and leads to another change of mind. If you’re not near either of them you might think about attacking them first, then once you’ve got that additional security behind you then you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want with minimal fear of failure. There have been some excellent threads on this site on “FU Money” in the past, but I’ll reiterate that the sums involved may be surprisingly small if you have been cost-conscious and worked hard at investing from a young age. Early investment in both your skills and your financial safety net is something where I suspect Bardon I strongly agree; where I’ll differ from his advice is to reassure you that you don’t need to be a ball-breaking go-getter to reach that state. That mindset is just not a part of my make-up, and if it isn’t in yours then don’t sweat it. A less high-flying career of just pottering around doing things that interest you may well, depending on how in-demand your interests happen to be, pay off perfectly well enough to get you where you want to be. It worked for me.

    I’ll note a possible exception to that safety-first approach is if you have something specific in mind for your fourth option of a complete career change, where you’re thinking of moving into an area that requires several decades to pay off. Lots of career-frustrated 30-somethings move into medicine, for example, but the training eats heavily into their remaining working years. That kind of thing isn’t a move that makes much sense in your 40s.

  23. @BiI

    Be careful about MBAs. Younger is better for the RoI as the cost is truly astronomical for good schools and the lower ranked places, whilst cheaper, don’t open doors as well nor do they teach or connect you as well. I have an MBA from a top 5 in world school and am a poor earner compared to peers but still get clear into six figure compensation. But we have six figure expenditure with kids in private schools and travel bills to make your eyes water, and a tiny house in London that doesn’t come cheap.

    Go for option 4 whilst you can. When you get older the millstones of paying £20k a year per child for school, and having three, is a killer. My wife works and gets more than me but it would hurt for one of us to stop working for any length of time. That’s not a great place to be.

    Satisfaction comes from doing a job well and not feeling powerless. Well paid but having shifty senior management makes for a shitty life as it infects your mind. Less money with a job you love is worth more. Mind you “less money” is relative. We’re not talking minimum wage here!

    Happy to talk MBAs and advantages etc if Tim puts you in touch. Lots to engineers go into MBA to help them understand more about business for their start ups. They are usually good as they have the right mind set of methodically tackling issues in order of importance and structuring problems.

  24. This is a late entry to the thread, but if you wanted to make a lot of money as quickly as possible, but still have a ‘regular’ job and not be an entrepreneur, you could take the Certificate in Quantitative Finance and then try and get a job as a derivatives trader. It isn’t that expensive (I think around £10K) compared to an MBA, and is well known within that niche. It is part time and you could do it within a year. Salary wise you would get something pretty decent at the start and on six figures in no time (assuming you do well), even though banking isn’t what it used to be for compensation (albeit still not bad by any stretch of the imagination).

  25. dearieme,

    It’s not just that he’s having fun. He’s also being useful. People get a buzz from that. And that’s always the best job to do. Something genuinely useful.

    Ok, you can land yourself a jammy job in a government ministry where you can play minesweeper all day, but how long is that going to last, and what can you bring to the table when reality finally catches up with the Department of Bullshit.

    And this doesn’t mean management is bullshit. Management is really important. But in large places, you aren’t a manager. You’re a bureaucrat. You don’t get to hand pick your team. HR filter that first. You don’t get to choose the PCs and servers. That’s done for you. You have mountains of internal rules, disciplinary procedures, almost none of which are about shipping solutions.

  26. He’s also being useful. People get a buzz from that. And that’s always the best job to do. Something genuinely useful.

    He should avoid the oil industry.

    Ok, you can land yourself a jammy job in a government ministry where you can play minesweeper all day, but how long is that going to last, and what can you bring to the table when reality finally catches up with the Department of Bullshit.

    You can do that for a lifetime in terms of getting away with it. Whether that’s what you want to do your whole life is another matter entirely. That’s right where I am now.

  27. Thanks for all the responses! Lots of viewpoints and food for thought there.

    I think fundamentally, it’s told me that I need to review my life plan. One of those tasks that slips by, year after year. Still, a Goan beach suitable for such reflection is a mere £50 return flight away right now. Many thanks to all contributors!

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