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.