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June 15, 2017
Culture

Mediocrity rising

Why being small stops us being excellent, and how that can change.

  • Words: Farrin Foster

In an interview the other day, someone said something interesting to me.

“When our generation takes over, in a lot of sectors, things will get better.”

I was surprised because the person was – almost above anything else – humble, and highly self-aware. He wasn’t the type to go banging on about how Baby Boomers are ruining everything. He was – on balance – very balanced.

Farrin is CityMag’s editor

His point was, really, that Generation Y was more likely to embrace change than their predecessors, and that a readier acceptance of change could really help SA evolve into a better future.

This, of course, is logical and correct in some senses. People like he and I grew up in an era of rapid and constant change, whereas previous generations grew up in relative stability. Generation Y is comfortable with transformation, older people might be less so.

But – I know plenty of Baby Boomers and Generation X types who aren’t afraid of change. They deal with it just as well as anyone under the age of 40.

I think the people who are most often afraid of change are the people who suspect it will render them obsolete.

It’s the mediocre who worry about being left behind, whereas the excellent – no matter their age – rush forward, sometimes with fear and trepidation, but always curious to see where things might go.

Because of this, mediocrity is an Adelaide tradition that will not die out with generational change.

In almost every place around the world there are examples of people failing upwards. This phenomenon happens when people are promoted either through sheer inertia or, more sinisterly, in an effort to get them out of a certain team or area without breaching contract or creating awkwardness.

But in Adelaide this universal occurrence has a special depth of impact.

We’re a small city, and that can be and is a strength in many ways.

But being small, close-knit, and relatively non-diverse in the upper echelons of our corporate and public institutions means failing upwards is one of our city’s specialties.

A friend of mine recently asked me, “Who do you think a Creative Director at an ad agency is going to hire? Me, or the guy he sees at the kids’ soccer game every Saturday? It doesn’t matter if the other guy is just good and I’m great – they’re still hiring the other guy.”

(Side note – Yes, all the people in this example are men. That’s pretty reflective of real life.)

This entrenchment of mediocrity thanks to our city’s population size and existing culture of power holds us back. Sure – there are energetic, dynamic pockets of change in which people are doing things differently – but there’s still a lot of instances where things work the same way they have for decades.

But instead of throwing our hands in the air and saying that Adelaide’s size means it will always be this way, I reckon we could accept our size, but work on our culture. I’m a crazy lefty so I think supporting diversity at the top might be a solution, but hey – I’m just a girl.

Seriously though, there’s hope in creating more depth in our leadership. If jobs for the boys (and sometimes the ladies) are less and less a part of the way SA gets things done, then maybe we might see a few more jobs going to the excellent, and a bit less mediocrity rising.

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