Steve Jobs and the Tyranny of Mediocrity

October 7th, 2011 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

Buried in the posthumous accolades for all the cool stuff Steve Jobs was responsible for are interviews with friends, partners and competitors which all circle around the Jobs’ real gift and skill: vision.  Jobs was no mediocrat. 

Mediocrity has a negative connotation but, by definition, mediocrity just means being in the middle.  And the middle is where most of us, and most business and organizations, live.  For a corporation it is the ideal place to be since that is where most of your market will be.  For an organization, including non-profit charities like HSBC, it may seem the smart place to be because it puts you in the middle of your charitable “market”, the people who support your work. 

For us as individuals, being in the middle is just usually the easiest place to be and there are no demerits for being where everyone else is.  So when I say that Jobs had the gift and skill of not being a mediocrat, it is not a slight on those in the middle, it is merely a compliment for him.  No more than saying that Jimi Hendrix was a gifted and skilled guitarist is a slight to me- a person neither skilled nor gifted on the guitar.

President George H. W. Bush famously said he didn’t have the “vision thing” and most people don’t.  The “vision thing” is often a gift but depending on when and where you live and work it can be quite an unwelcome one.  In the Middle Ages being a “visionary” was as likely to get you burned at the stake as anything else.  It can still get you proverbially burned at the stake today, depending on how far out of the middle your vision draws you.  And a gift of vision alone is little more valuable than dreaming of a painting a masterpiece, if one lacks the skill to execute it. 

Even lacking the gift of vision, some can cultivate the skill of implementing vision.  The best CEO’s have this skill.  They can take what’s floating around out there and shift the bell curve of the middle, that medio-spot, right up to the line that separates the mediocre from the great.  But skill alone can’t break through that wall. 

What Jobs really seemed to master, and what I have heard again and again from those who knew him best, was the combination of the gift and the skill of seeing and working outside of the middle and of determining how to drag the entire bell curve with him so that he and his vision were no longer outliers, they were the new norm. 

He did not always succeed in this because there is a great tyranny of mediocrity.  It is the greatest tyranny of all because it is the norm and it works incessantly, actively and passively, to keep the middle from moving.  Mediocrity tends to explicitly avoiding, if not block, change and those in the middle often genuinely fear what is around the corner or over the curve.  Our natural tendency is to want to believe we are not actually in the middle, that we are somewhat more visionary than we actually are, and to suspect those who lead us to a place, a future, or a way of doing things we can’t easily see for ourselves. 

It doesn’t help that visionaries are often perceived to be- and sometimes genuinely are- a bit arrogant, as Jobs was reported to be, especially in his younger years.  This perceived arrogance is often the convenient excuse of those who do fight against a vision of change, even one laid out in excruciating detail before them, not because they do not see the correctness of the course but because they resent not having seen the path themselves.  They are the ones who blindly hold to dogma in the face of reality.  We’ve all experienced their blind, mediocre wrath at times when we’ve presented a “What if we did this…?” to them. 

There is no doubt that Jobs repeatedly saw not just where he could take something but he looked around to see what pieces were already there to build with.  He combined gift and skill.  The Apple (and Disney, where he was also the largest individual shareholder) he left behind on Wednesday were built on ideas, inventions and people relegated to the scrap heap.  Graphic User Interfaces, the mouse, desktop computers in the home, digital music, even Pixar Studios, were all considered unpractical novelties or even threats to the status quo in which the corporate world existed until Jobs and his vision thing came along and cobbled the parts and concepts together into something which would have been terrifying to the powers that be ten, twenty, thirty years ago but is now the new normal- and wildly profitable for them. 

He was booted from Apple because his vision wasn’t being realized quickly, and profitably, enough for even those who had invested in his vision.  But when highly capable mediocrats had failed in their efforts to do something with Pixar Studios, he came in and built a behemoth.  When the vastly skilled mediocrat Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, failed to see the real potential of Pixar and was prepared to scuttle the partnership it had with Disney, he was ousted by new CEO Bob Iger, a person who has at least cultivated the skill of visioneering. 

The end result was that Jobs, ousted from Apple and purchasing a floundering Pixar from George Lucas for five million dollars, received over seven billion dollars and became Disney’s largest shareholder.  It also meant that John Lassiter, the Walt Disney of our time and a gifted visionary in his own right, was returned to the management bosom of the company which had previously fired him.  Fired him for having the vision to do more with computer generated graphics.  The vision Disney later paid seven billion dollars to get back.

The way Jobs described finding the right thing to do and the happiness it brings one personally in a commencement speech he gave a few years ago is making the rounds but it seems to me to be widely misinterpreted due to the media’s selection of sound bites.  They focused their doe eyed sap on a sentence or two about doing what you love, without the context he placed that advice in.  He did not mean, as so many seem to think, that doing what you love is the same thing as doing what necessarily makes you the happiest.  Doing what you love is often extremely difficult and leads to the greatest heart break.  Jobs paid a price repeatedly for doing the visionary things he loved, the things which we now ultimately see where the right things but which often led to personal failure and rejection for Jobs.

In reality, it was doing the visionary thing which brought him happiness, success or not.  I liken that need to do the visionary thing, the thing that feels right, even when few if any have any idea what you are seeing or talking about, with the feeling of rightness someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder must feel from knowing the light switch is in the correct position.  It’s not just that feels wrong in the wrong position.  It’s that one feels compelled to put it right.  I imagine that is no more comfortable or “happy” for a visionary than it is for an OCD sufferer.  Jobs clearly had that compulsion to put his work and world right as he saw it.  Even when he found himself on the wrong end of a pink slip from the company he created, when he was hardly happy, he knew we was doing what he loved and was walking his true path. 

Despite suffering from failure and rejection he maintained a trust and love in the correctness of his vision and he would have been proven right eventually, even if given no credit and it was in obscurity.  What he saw was correct.  He didn’t always have the resources, the people, the timing, the luck, or probably the skill to realize his vision all the time, but when he had that correct combination he transformed the world he worked in and we live in.  And that gave him happiness and success.  That attempt to have the gift and skill of visioneering and bring together all the external components which will realize their full potential is what we should all strive to emulate. 

What does any of this have to do with animal welfare?  Well, animal welfare is largely a domain of staunch, even prideful, mediocrats and has been for decades.  Most of the professionals are not only happy to be in the middle, they savagely defend their position there.  They not only cannot see beyond their point on the bell curve, because of the life and death consequences of our work, they cannot even embrace the possibility that there may be a new way forward.  To do so would be to admit they had not seen that way and, as a result, animals had paid the price. 

Not only is this bad for animals, it opens the field to those who can come in claiming to be visionaries.  The success of the most strident of the No Kill movement is largely due to the mediocrats claiming the immutability of the status of animal welfare so devoutly that any prophet of change, whether gifted with true vision or not, can make any claim and it will be accepted as at least some other way.  But the mere gift of vision is not enough; the skill of doing something with that vision must be there, too. 

Animal welfare mediocrats have been engaged in a tyranny of mediocrity by denying that the torrential rains of animals entering shelter and facing euthanasia could be stopped.  Fringe visionaries have come along at times with little more of a vision than “pray for sun”.  Some have finally come along with enough skill to suggest building a roof but then ask us to deny that rain is continuing to fall elsewhere on others.  Until we can all see and accept and implement a vision in which all are equally under cover from the rain, we will be at best gifted mediocrats.  We will only move along the curve to a certain point and no farther.  We will never move it to a new normal in the way that Steve Jobs did in his industry. 

As long as those in the middle are terrified of change and those who offer a vision of change provide only the shallowest of alternatives and only thumbnail sketches rather than detailed blueprints of their visions, very little will change for animals. 

What would the lives of animals be like if we could create the Apple of animal welfare?  What if all the others working in animal welfare were striving to keep up with visionaries who have jumped the wall instead of shackling themselves to the middle in terror of change?  What would that mean for the animals we all claim to care about?  Hell, what would that mean for our own happiness and success in an “industry” wracked with misery, attrition and burn out? 

What if we all became the visioneers of animal welfare rather than its mediocrats?  We may not be able to be the Steve Jobs of animal welfare but we should all try a little harder to be like the Steve Jobs of animal welfare.


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