“I know of no one more qualified to write about mediocrity.” – Sir John Hegarty
Advertising has many advantages as a job, beer fridges to name seven, but it can be a very frustrating place. Many times in my career I would howl at the moon and bemoan the injustice that although I was clearly exceptionally talented at my job I struggled to find anyone else, including close relatives, who shared that view.
Possibly this is a phase we all go through. I’d need to do more research.
Eventually, following yet another incident where the exceptional nature of my work had been inexplicably overlooked, the frustration shook me into changing my outlook. Rather than being bitter about my lack of recognition, perhaps if I calmed down, accepted my limitations and worked with what I had, I’d be better off.
Once I’d grasped that the world was just randomly unfair rather than specifically and maliciously biased, matters improved.
After all, I possessed determination, a strong work ethic, and a reasonable writing style. I was OK at presenting, had avoided dependence on drugs (well, other than the holy trinity of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine) and generally had a decent working relationship with the people around me (fact unchecked). While some may dispute even these qualities, it was a start.
I was on my way to being quite good.
But what about you?
Are you smart enough to be mediocre?
Ask yourself the following questions:
1) Why haven’t you had greater success in your career?
A) Because you’ve been held back by idiots.
B) Because you might not be as good as you think.
2) How did you manage to reach your current position?
A) Because of your extraordinary ability and hard work.
B)For a number of reasons, including luck.
If you answered A to both or either of the questions you almost certainly overestimate your abilities. At some stage, life will put you right on this, the sooner the better for your sake.
If you answered with a pair of Bs you are on the way to accepting your place in the universe and can start to address the future with confidence. (Alternatively, it’s just further evidence that you lie to yourself during self-evaluation quizzes. Hard to tell from here.)
What's luck got to do with it?
There’s not really such a thing as good luck, or bad luck. It’s just luck – and it’s a massive part of everyone’s life. If Tiger Woods had been born to a train driver in Norway he would never have played golf. If Donald Trump’s father had not been a New York real estate millionaire we would never have heard of the scumbag. Accidents of birth are half the job. It’s unlikely that being born a white, middle-class male in London has held me back.
However, while you should acknowledge the importance of luck, it really doesn’t help to blame it for your setbacks. The Italian schemer Niccolò Machiavelli, always a fruitful source of career advice, saw luck as a barely controllable force of nature. The truly mediocre should learn to bend it to their will. It’s hard for an introvert to say this, but you need to make your own luck: make that excruciating phone call, go for that awkward coffee, ask that discomfiting question. It’s a bit like dating.
For example, right at the start of my career, the day before the end of a three-week internship in London I suggested to my creative partner, Mike, that we should ask Jack, the creative director, if we could stay on the job longer.
“Don’t you dare,” said Mike, distraught at the thought of being pushy with someone who held the power of life and unemployment over us. I didn’t want to do it either, but if we didn’t get an extension we were on the dole on Monday.
It was very hard to get in front of Jack, but we had a meeting booked with him that afternoon. After we’d presented our latest uninspired but competent offerings, Mike squirmed as I haltingly asked Jack if we could possibly extend our internship to finish the jobs we’d started. Jack lit a cigarette (different days) and tried to think of a reason to get rid of us.
“You’re doing OK,” he said. “But I’m afraid there’s just no room for you.”
Mike picked up our work and headed for the door. I didn’t move.
“Actually,” I said, “there’s an empty storeroom we could use. I’ve asked and it’s OK.
I didn’t argue about how good we were. I just took away his reason to say no.
“That place hasn’t even got windows,” said Jack.
I shrugged. “It’s fine. We’ll manage. Thanks.”
So we didn’t leave the next day.
I stayed for nine years and ended up on the board.
Maybe I wasn’t good enough to hire.
But I was sure as hell mediocre enough to stick in a windowless storeroom.
• Paul Catmur worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is the second in a series of articles about how you can make your limitations work for you. Next week, where the mediocre should look for jobs
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