May 6, 2011

The Microsoft Effect … spreading the mediocrity virus

Mediocrity has been on my mind lately. I’ve never thought about the “so-so” sirens song of mediocrity much. She lay dormant like a seed waiting for the first rain. The rain has come and the thing has sprouted into a hardy desert shrub that just won’t let go and won’t let me rest.

So-so reared her head, first as a prickle of conscience when I started asking myself if I was bringing my A-game to the party. Was my writing up to par (or should I say, above par), did my training cut the mustard and was my consulting flawless? Sadly, if I’m brutally honest, some of my work is middling at best and downright sh$& at worst.

So, I did what all mediocre people do, I compared myself with others, hoping against hope that they were doing a worse job than me so that I could at least salvage some self-respect and rationalise my inadequacies.

To my surprise, I realised I wasn’t alone in floundering around in my own mediocrity and inadequacy. Mediocrity is a disease. It’s evident everywhere. From some of the books I review – lifeless, listless and a two-dimensional version of the author’s true genius to the illegibility that has crept into newspapers (and, fully endorsed by the sub-editors). And, let’s not get started on the barely tolerable service we have to endure every day in both the public and private sector.

Who is to blame? Let me add the fuel that helps mediocrity thrive … pointing fingers.

Did Microsoft start mediocrity?

I put the blame squarely on Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen. On November 20, 1985 Windows 1.0 was shipped. Although it was revolutionary at the time, it wasn’t a fully formed Field of Dreams … “build it an they’ll come”. It was more like “… kinda build it and they will come”. It was a “let’s just get it out there and fix it as we go along” strategy. Not a bad strategy considering that most folks will accept anything dished up to them that is dressed up by clever marketing. [If you think marketing doesn’t work, consider this question: “What is the difference between a rat and a squirrel?” Go to the end of this article for the answer.] And, it appears to be the strategy that has won the day. Let’s produce so-so, get it out there and fix it as we go along. To be fair, I can hardly blame Microsoft for mediocrity. This question has probably been pondered since time immemorial. In 1899, Elbert Hubbard pondered this question in his now-famous, A Message to Garcia (sold 40-million copies, translated into 37 languages and adapted for a couple of movies).

A Message to Garcia

No man, who has endeavoured to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man – the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a tying and do it. Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook, or threat, he forces or bribes other men to assist him. I’ve no doubt that this is essential reading for anyone who is involved in a business enterprise.

Was Wedgewood too perfect?

Let’s take another view. On May 1, 1759 when the pottery firm Wedgewood was founded by Josiah Wedgewood. Credited with the industrialisation of pottery, Wedgewood was a stickler for excellence. If his factory produced anything that had even the tiniest flaw, he would have it destroyed. Only the very best was allowed to bear his distinctive signature and adorn someone’s table. He was probably one of the first to put his signature on anything and the forefather of “personal branding”.

So, what do we do? Wait for perfection before shipping anything out? If that were the case, this article would never have seen the light of day. Not much would be done. That’s probably not an option, is it? Maybe we should take a moment to pause. Even if we can’t put out the absolute best work can we not put out the very best work we can do to the maximum of our given ability? Let’s bring our A-game, as good as it is to everything we do.

Does a horror writer have the answer?

And, maybe it is as simple as following Stephen King’s advice in his book On Writing. He claims that after he has written a story, he takes out 10% of the content before he is satisfied with it. He tightens it up so it is more effective. Not a bad idea. Imagine if we spent just 10% more time on a project, book, proposal, training document, sales call, marketing message, nuclear power station, safety manual, prospecting for business and so on … just to check that it is the very best work we can deliver with the talents we have been given. Wouldn’t things just work a little better than they are now?

Amateurs help fuel mediocrity

To help rid us of the disease called mediocrity, I lean towards a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. You may know him better as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. He makes a case for being a professional as an ideal in every endeavour we undertake and he shuns the amateur.

Here’s his take:

  • The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. • To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.
  • The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.
  • The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

He says that the conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. In his view, the amateur does not love the game enough. if he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Maybe that’s all that it will take. Commit now to turning pro, turn every endeavour into a vocation and shun mediocrity.

Question: What’s the difference between a rat and a squirrel? Answer: Marketing

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