The Narrative of Mediocrity

I was defeated. Interested in getting off to a good start and impressing, I had overachieved in the course by working hard and studying diligently to make a good impression. And yet, when the first essay was returned to the class, mine had a big, fat B staring back at me, smug with the kind of curves that are refreshingly absent in a nice, crisp A. I didn’t understand how this had happened, and the fact that none of the other students had received As either was cold comfort. I’d sought to impress, but the teacher had put me in my place.

I got an A in that class. I actually don’t remember which class it was any longer because it happened in a number of them. It happened in high school, college, and graduate school. I started off a B student on subjectively-graded assignments and ‘improved’ steadily for the duration of the course until I wound up with an A. Many of my peers followed the same trajectory. It was a nice story of growth and learning. It was the perfect narrative…for the teacher.

What could be better than a fresh-faced crop of students, talented but raw, eager to learn, being humbled and improving under the teacher’s tutelage? It’s the secondary education equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. It gives the students humility, confidence, and a work ethic, and it makes the teacher look and feel great. Everyone wins, so really, what’s the harm in the fiction? So what if it’s a bit of a fabrication? Who cares?

Well, I did. I was a relentless perfectionist as a student and this sort of evaluation drove me nuts. I sought out explanations for early B’s in classes where this happened and found no satisfaction in the explanations. I raged against the system and eventually cynically undercut it, going out of my way to perform the same caliber of work in the before and after pictures, doggedly determined to prove conspiracy. My hypothesis was confirmed by my experiments–my grades improved even as my work did not–and my triumphant proof of conspiracy was met with collective yawns and eye-rolls by anyone who actually paused long enough to listen to me.

I learned a lesson as a child and young adult about the way the academic world worked. Upon graduation from college, I was primed to learn that the business world worked that way too.

The Career Train

There are a lot of weird symmetries, quirks, and even paradoxes in the field of macroeconomics. It’s truly a strange beast. Consider, for instance, the concept of inflation, wherein everyone gets more money and money becomes worth less, but not necessarily in completely equal proportions. We’re used to thinking of money in a zero-sum kind of sense–if I give you ten dollars, then I am ten dollars poorer and you are ten dollars richer. But through the intricacies of lending and meta-transactions surrounding money, we can conceive of a scheme where we start with ten dollars and each wind up with six dollars some time later. And so it goes in life–as time goes by, we all have more money (at least in lending-based, market economics). If things get out of whack and everyone doesn’t have more money as time goes by, you have stagnation (or deflation). If things get out of whack the other way, you wind up with runaway inflation and market instability. They system works (or at least works best) when everyone gets a little more at a measured, predictable, and homogeneous pace.

The same thing seems to happen throughout our careers. We all start in the business world as complete initiates, worth only our entry level paychecks, and we all trudge along throughout our careers, gradually acquiring better salaries, titles, accessories, and office locations. Like a nice but not-too-steep interest rate, people have an expectation of dependable, steady, slight gain throughout their career. Two promotions in your twenties is pretty reasonable. Managing a team by your mid thirties. A nice office and a VP or director title in your later forties, and perhaps a C-level executive position of some kind when you’re in your fifties to sixties. On average, anyway. Some real go-getters might show their prodigious talents by moving that timeline up by five years or so, while some laggards might move it back by the same amount, topping out at some impressive but non-executive title.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. You want to shout “Mark Zuckerberg!” at me. Or something along those lines–some example of a disruptive entrepreneur that proves there is a different, less deterministic path. Sure, there is. People who opt out of the standard corporate narrative do so at large risk and large possible reward. Doing so means that you might be Zuckerberg or that Instagram guy, but it means that you’re a lot more likely to be working in your garage on something that goes nowhere while your friends are putting in their time in their twenties, getting to the best cubicles, offices, and corner offices a few years before you do. By not getting on the train when all your friends do, you’re going to arrive later and behind them–unless you luck out and are teleported there by the magic teleportation fairy of success.

So forget the Zuckerbergs and the people who opt out in the negative sense and never get back in. Here in corporate land, the rest of us are on a train, and there’s not a lot of variance in arrival times on trains. If you get right to the front of the train, you may get there a few minutes early, but that’s all the wiggle-room you get. The upside to this mode of transportation is that trains are comfortable, dependable, and predictable. A lot of people prefer to travel this way, and the broad sharing of cost and resources make it worth doing. It’s a sustainable, measured pace.

Everyone Meets Expectations

They don’t stop two trains on the track so that people who are fast and serious about going fast can sprint to the next train. It may be good for a few, but it would enrage the many and throw the system out of whack. That applies to trains, and it applies to your performance reviews. The train runs on time, and the only question is whether you’re in the front (exceeds expectations) or the back (meets some expectations). If you’re perennially in front, you’ll get that C-Level corner office at fifty, but perennially in back, and you’ll just be the sales manager at fifty.

Seem cynical? If so, ask yourself this: why are there no office prodigies? In school, there were those kids who skipped a grade or who took Algebra with the eighth graders while their fellow seventh graders were in Pre-Algebra. There were people who took AP classes, aced their SATs, and who achieved great, improbable things. What happens to those outliers in the corporate world, if they don’t drop out and go the Zuckerberg route? Why is there no one talented enough to rocket through the corporate ranks the way there was in school? Doesn’t that seem odd? Doesn’t it seem like, by sheer odds, there should be someone who matches Zuckerberg as a twenty-something wunderkind CEO by coming up through the corporate world rather than budging back in from entrepreneur-land? Maybe just one, like, ever?

I would think so. I would think that corporate prodigies would exist, if I didn’t know better–if I didn’t know that the mechanism of corporate advancement was a train, a system designed to quite efficiently funnel everyone toward the middle. You might exceed expectations or fail to meet them at any given performance review, but on a long enough timeline, you meet expectations because everyone meets expectations. It’s the most efficient way to create a universal and comfortable narrative for everyone. That narrative is that all of everyone’s work and achievement through life has built toward something. That the corner office is the product of forty years of loyalty, dedication, and cleverness. After forty years of meeting expectations, you, too, can finally arrive.

This isn’t some kind of crazy conspiracy theory. This is transparently enforced via HR matrices. All across the nation and even the world, there are corporate policies in place saying that level six employees can’t receive two promotions before level seven employees receive one. It wouldn’t be fair to pay Suzy more than Steve since Steve has three more years of industry experience. Organizations, via a never-ending collection of superficially unrelated policies, rules, regulations, and laws, take a marathon and put it on a single-file people-mover.

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Wither the Performance Review

So if I had a parallel experience with a manufactured narrative in school and the corporate world, how to explain grade-skippers and AP-takers? Simple. In school, the narrative occurs for the benefit of the teacher on the micro (single quarter or semester) level. In the work world, it occurs for everyone’s benefit for the rest of your working life.

So why do organizations bother with the awkward performance review construct? Well, in part because it’s necessary to make justifications about issues like pay, position, and promotions. If people receive titular, “career-advancing” promotions every three to four years, a review is necessary in the first year to tell them that they need to “get better at business” or something. Then in the second year, they can hear that they’re making “good strides at business,” followed in the third year by a hearty congratulations for “being great at business,” and, “really earning that promotion to worker IV.” Like a scout earning a merit-badge, this manufactured narrative will be valued by the ‘earner’ because it supplies purpose to the past three years, even if the person being reviewed didn’t “get better at business” (whatever that means). But the other purpose is providing the narrative for the reviewers. If the reviewers’ reports started out “bad at business” and ‘improved’ under his tutelage, his own review narrative goes a lot better, and so on, recursively, up the chain. What a wonderful world where everyone is helping everyone get better at a very measured pace, steadily, over the course of everyone’s career.

But just as I railed against this concept in school, so do I now. I’ve never received sub-standard reviews. In general annual review parlance, mine have typically been “exceeds expectations but…” where “but” is some reason that I’m ‘not quite ready’ for a promotion or more responsibility just yet. Inevitably, this magically fixes itself.

So what if we did as Michael O. Church suggests and simply eliminate the performance reviews along these lines? Poof. Gone. I don’t know about you, but I might just find a “we’re not promoting you because that’s our policy” refreshingly honest as compared to a manufactured and non-actionably vague piece of ‘constructive’ criticism. (This is not to be confused with a piece of feedback like “your code should be more modular,” or, “you should deliver features more quickly,” both of which are specific, actionable, and perfectly reasonable critiques. But also don’t require some kind of silly annual ceremony where I find out if I’m voted onto Promotion Island or if I’ll have to play again next year.) I certainly don’t have an MBA, and I’m not an expert in organizational structuring and management, but it just seems to me as though we can do better than a stifling policy of funneling everyone toward the middle and manufacturing nonexistent deficiencies so that we can respond by manufacturing empty victories. I can only speak for myself, but you can keep the guaranteed trappings of ascending the corporate ladder if you just let me write my own story in which my reach exceeds my grasp.

  • Peter Holmdahl

    Good thoughts! You didn’t underdeliver that one!

  • Amitai Schlair

    Generating and acting on insights about my own performance is my eternal responsibility; offering frequent, small feedback is my manager’s. So if we’ve both done our meta-jobs well, the annual review is a formality, best used to convey other formalities (such as promotions) and to give formal cover to “not this year”. But not everyone does their meta-jobs well. If an annual review winds up being surprising in any way, then given the circumstances and the players, having that review is the best possible outcome. They didn’t make time to think about each other, didn’t make time to talk to each other about it, or didn’t feel comfortable doing so. These two people should be forced to have some sort of pseudo-meaningful conversation before the problem gets worse.

    On the flip side, I really have gotten better at a whole bunch of stuff (not all of which I discovered myself or improved according to my own plan). By what shorthand can I quickly represent the current scope and sweep of my abilities to a new customer or collaborator, if not some kind of attestation from a trusted source? And is that not what a promotion is meant to be? What would be more effective?

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Thanks! Glad you liked.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    This post fell into the ‘rant’ category for me, meaning that it’s one of those where I sort of disconsolately point out what I perceive to be a problem without really offering a solution. A personal goal of mine is to do less of that and speak more in terms of solutions.

    Your point about titles as categories and abbreviated summaries of skill levels is well-taken, as is your point about built-in, forced feedback mechanisms. After all, one of my fundamental guiding principles in software is to find ways to get early and fast feedback.

    I think what I’m driving at is a desire to separate the positive things that go on in performance reviews (meaningful feedback, airing of grievances, adjustment of expectations) from the institutionalized practice of putting everyone on a sort of automated promotion assembly line, complete with HR matrices and obligatory 5 year gifts. I think all of the positive things can happen in more ad-hoc, less formalized structures or perhaps ones that aren’t as tied in with other career considerations (salary, org charts, etc). This is all pretty loose in my head right now, and it might be worth fleshing out my thoughts in a more positive post suggesting improvements. *Goes to add a draft to remind me to finish*

  • Amitai Schlair

    If it were necessary to finish preparing better ideas in order to start disagreeing with existing ones, we’d all be worse off. I’ve tried to train my thought process to jump straight from “this ain’t right” to “what would right look like?”, but that only seems to work when the badness isn’t immediate and overwhelming. Rants are legit. This one resonated with me. Looking forward to the followup!

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Perhaps there is a place for a good rant — cathartic, if nothing else. I definitely want to work on pairing them with solution suggestions, though, even if it is after the fact.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SoulFireMage Richard Griffiths

    Thank you for saving me a lot of hassle, this is a great read. Makes total sense!

    It’s a bit of a reminder to “work to live” or ensure you work on what your passionate about-life doesn’t give you reruns.

    And I think there’s folks I love I should be spending more attention on!

  • MichaelOChurch

    Also, here’s the dark side of the pseudo-fair seniority-based mediocrity train: people never get to skip grades, but it’s really easy for a manager to hold you back.

    Those two issues are tied together. If people who obviously *should* get fast promotions do, then the threat of being held back with a “Misses Some Expectations” is less severe because, as soon as that person has a better manager, she’ll rise to her level. People would be less afraid of setbacks in a world where fast promotion was possible. The rate-limiting on promotions, no matter how good someone is, makes the ~1-to-3-year penalty associated with a PIP or a layoff or a firing much longer lasting.

    This whole arrangement is especially annoying in computer programming, because it’s non-managerial (which I prefer; the only thing that appeals about being a manager to me is not being managed) but it takes 10-20 years to get seriously good at it. The infuriating reality is that there are few companies that can look at a 50-year-old programmer and not see someone who “failed” to become a manager.

    How does all this tie into job-hopping? It’d be interesting to hear your analysis of that, because my experience is that companies do, at least, vary in their train speeds.

    In my experience, it adds a lot of variability. You can get fast promotions that way. On the other hand, you might really be landing in another junior role with slightly higher pay, and that means you’re the first one to go when a layoff hits; expectations will be high because you’re paid highly, but your low title/position make it hard to achieve anything. The danger of job hopping comes from that, and also the fact that lot of people still find that career strategy distasteful (even though it’s usually involuntary) so a lot of people end up back on the pokey track.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    That’s a good point about the ‘flunking’ possibility. Whereas grade school advances everyone along uniformly except for extraordinary circumstances, good or bad, the corporate world allows ‘students’ to be flunked if their ‘teachers’ don’t like the looks of them. If a clever and marketable opportunist senses this as a possibility, they’re likely to abandon ship lightning fast and go somewhere that their career won’t be threatened.

    So I think this paradigm creates strong pressure to job hob. Sad as it is to say, it’s always struck me as the only way to climb the ladder as fast as you can handle advancement. Job searching is a pain, so there’s that to stop you, but if you’re ready for more challenging work after 3 months of learning, who wants to sit around and wait 3 years for the machine to catch up? I guess in short, I’d say that the only way to “skip grades” is to job hop.

    I might make this fodder for a future post though — the subject of programmers shuffling around between jobs and the way employers and employees awkwardly fumble around pretending that the marriage is forever is an interesting one. By the way, your comment about management made me think of Plato in The Republic: “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”