ON AN occasion which is usually fuelled by the most indulgent and hyperbolic rhetoric, David McCullough’s graduation speech to the Class of 2012 at a Boston high school must have seemed especially bracing: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
So subversive indeed was his paean to mediocrity that the speech has become an internet classic, a corrective to the perceived modern obsession with excellence and achievement.
As we discovered on Business Daily (World Service, Friday), there are several academics and writers out there proclaiming the benefits of mediocrity as a lifestyle choice — although they all ultimately come up against a contradiction: at what point does their success in putting out the message deprive them of the quality they so keenly espouse?
Take Krista O’Reilly Davi-Digui, a Canadian blogger whose life journey has enabled her to recognise and combat the oppression that derives from modern culture’s requirement for success. For instance, we all know that there is nothing more depressing than a visit to Facebook and having to confront the daily anthology of preening success stories by colleagues and “friends”.
Ms Davi-Digui urges us to eschew these petty concerns; but does so by blogging, posting, and tweeting so voluminously that her own life and work could hardly be regarded as ordinary or mediocre.
The pursuit of mediocrity has been given a name: “kakonomics”. Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher, coined the term to describe a state of mind which she recognises among her fellow Italians. If you do what you’re expected to do — turn up in time, conform to the rules — then you are regarded as some kind of control freak. There is an understanding, Origgi argues to underachieve.
But wasn’t this something that we Brits prided ourselves on? It was unseemly to try too hard. Apparently not. You only have to look at the Olympics medal-table to find evidence of Italy beating us at our own game.
“No one likes us, we don’t care,” is the cheery chant of the Millwall football supporter. More loathed still is the referee standing in the middle, doling out the red cards. In Everybody Hates Me (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the writer James Walton met a group of trainee refs to find out why they would ever consider volunteering for such public abuse.
We got closest to an understanding thanks to the young man who delivered the first red card of his career to an 11-year-old goalkeeper. He cried. If he could manage that, one imagines he can take the slings and arrows of any number of Premier League babies.
In fact, none of the hated professions that Walton encountered seemed particularly unnerved by their reputations. Only the health-and-safety lady admitted to frustration, over the annual “bonkers conkers” myth which claims that conkers are banned from the playground because of an inspectorate directive. It will come around again this autumn, just you wait.