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Our Mediocre America?

Last week I was meeting with several company managers, and we were discussing how to increase productivity and profits.  One of the younger members of the group made the following observation (and I paraphrase a bit)

“It makes us all tense when you put pressure on us to perform or criticize us when thing go wrong.  I think that we would all be more productive if instead of saying negative things, every conversation began with a couple positives…. like say two nice things before you say a negative thing.”

“OK, let me try that out”, I replied.  “So for instance, I would say the following in a conversation…

  1. That’s a really nice shirt you are wearing.
  2. It looks like you have lost some weight.
  3. Oh, and by the way, you are fired.

Now I really didn’t fire the guy (he’s actually quite a nice and talented gentleman – he just has the wrong attitude), but I did pull him aside and point out how ridiculous I thought the idea was.  And more than just ridiculous, I found the entire discussion indicative of the new America – where the entitled grow lazy, fat, and ultimately, poor.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the main reason the economy is faltering is because we have too many or not enough taxes.  I don’t think the main obstacle facing America centers on immigration policy, reproductive rights, terrorism, national defense, or which sex you prefer to cohabitate with.  Certainly all those issues are very important to discuss, but the biggest threat to a vibrant and great country and economy is our own population.  A lazy, complacent, unmotivated, entitled population can only lead to national mediocrity, and at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I fear we are quickly moving in that direction.

Two of my good friends recently retired after long careers as University professors.  They lamented to me the transition they saw occur over the last few years.  “Kids used to come to school with an expectation of working hard and taking responsibility with real excitement about the future, but now many have an enormous sense of entitlement created by their parents”, my friends explained to me.  “I received many calls from parents complaining that their kids received a C.  That would never have happened twenty years ago.  The parents would have been upset with the kid.  But now it is the school or the professor’s fault if Junior doesn’t get a good grade.  I would explain why their son or daughter received an average or failing mark – always because they did average or failing work – but that was not what the parent wanted to hear.  We have gone from a society where kids were rewarded for being successful, to one where they are celebrated for just showing up, and it leads to incredible mediocrity.  What do we expect when kids get medals and awards just for participating instead of excelling?”

Our discussion then moved to the new trend in parenting we had all observed.  For many of us over the age of 40, our parents were always a bit feared and certainly respected.  They held us to standards, and disciplined us when we failed to perform.  Now parents want to be friends with their children, and friends never discipline their friends and seldom hold them to any standard.  Every inconsequential event is cause to celebrate.

“Great news everyone! Little Jimmy came in 19th out of 25 in the third grade spelling bee!  Yahoo!”  And within minutes 900 people on Facebook are regaled with forty seven photos of Jimmy holding his 19th place statue.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that it is a parent and an employer’s responsibility to motivate and develop talent.  But celebrating mediocrity just encourages mediocrity.

As an employer, I clearly see the impact of “parents as pals” movement in the workplace.  Certainly I have many terrific and motivated young employees, but I see an alarming number of people in their early 20’s act as if they have been hard at work for twenty or thirty years and have earned the right to “kick back”.    I regularly warn job applicants that the advertising industry is not the right career for someone seeking “life / work balance”.  Luckily there are now thousands of job opportunities for baristas that might fulfill this life dream, but that does not seem to resonate.

When I began my career I was just happy to have a paycheck and a place to work hard and prove my talents.  I took nothing for granted, and realized that nobody owed my anything I didn’t earn. (Whew – I really am sounding like a Grandpa here!)  Now we often get job applicants right out of college who believe the company is lucky to have the opportunity to employ them.

Our new mediocre America is also reflected in popular culture.  Ten years ago one of the most popular programs on HBO was “Sex in the City”, the story of several 30-something year old women finding fun, love, and sex in New York.  They were all successful; a writer, an attorney, a publicist; and while they had typical television neuroticism and problems, they had vibrant lives and ambitions and dated interesting and successful men.  Fast forward to HBO’s newest hit, “Girls”.  The women in this show are the polar opposites of the Sex in the City crowd.   The lead character is unemployed and living off her parents and friends.  In the opening episode her sweet folks inform her they can no longer support her, since she has been out of college several years.  She is pudgy and sluggish, constantly complaining she is fat and unhappy but doing nothing to remedy the situation.  She proclaims she wants to be a writer, but makes no effort to realize her ambition, instead assuming she deserves to be discovered.  When former classmates are successful, she is jealous and disdainful of their talents.  Her friends are similarly under or unemployed, with no real ambitions, and spend their days lamenting their lives and their nights partying.   One can only assume that the massive debt they all built up in college is covered by Mom and Dad, who probably had to raid their retirement funds or forego that kidney transplant to support their entitled children.

And the shame of the situation……  One of the greatest joys in my life and in the lives of most of my successful friends is in being “self-made”.  I would not trade the hard work of the first thirty years of my career for anything.  If you love your work, you want to work hard.  Having something handed to you is never satisfying, and there is tremendous joy in taking an uncompromising approach towards achieving your goals.

And I also know that mediocrity is most often a product of laziness, and lack of commitment and vision.  It happens when you just decide to “settle”.   It’s hard to open yourself and your work up to critique and criticism; it hurts and it does seem personal; but that’s how work moves from mediocre to great.  Accepting “good enough” isn’t a great idea.  It feels more like Greece than the good old USA.

So America….

  1. You look really beautiful.
  2. I think you have some really cool cities.
  3. Get off your ass and start being great.  Just because you were great once it doesn’t mean you will be great forever – you need to work at it.

This is Grandpa signing off!

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4 Responses to Our Mediocre America?

  1. Great article even though sad but true. Kudos for nailing it on the head with insight, humor and relevance. It appears that human nature does not deal well with over indulgence. Most often, humans needs some struggle and challenge to truly realize their potential…and appreciate life in general. At least there will be a lot of parents with kids who are their BFFs so they will be thrilled when they move back in to live off of them indefinitely. I am just happy to have been raised by parents who taught me the world does not owe me a living.

  2. Scott says:

    Welcome to the “Me” generation. My kids are not pressed to learn in school and always get chances to do better on a test if they dont want to study. Everyone has to be equal and everything has to be fair. Too bad they will be in for a shock when they have to get out and get a job. As funny as it sounds, you wrote a very good OpEd to the initial demanads on the OWS crowd.

  3. Gary Pilla says:

    Love this. And it’s sadly so true. In my household I have tried so hard to motivate, to teach and get them all to understand what it takes to achieve their dreams. My kids are doing ok, but I see their friends mired in laziness and waiting for things to be handed to them. I really fear that this trend is only going to get worse. You see these lazy, entitled kids are going to one day be parents. Heaven help us.

  4. Pamela Cohen says:

    Your article is AWESOME!!! I have been teaching elementary school for 25 years, and I just can’t believe the difference in students over the last 10 years! I am also the mother of two boys (now grown) and it was really tough at times because they saw so much mediocrity around them. I’m just not sure that there is much hope for change ….. the hole is really deep at this point!

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