The Hubris of Mediocrity
The Curator of Issue One, on the theme and beyond.
by Joseph P. Sgambati III
16 Feb 2022
Illustration by Joseph P. Sgambati III
Mediocrity is endemic, a chronic infection whose symptoms can manifest for some as arrogance and dissonance, while in others as fear and self-loathing. Remembering this condition can put a malaise on the creative process. But being cognizant of it is an impetus to remedy it.
Creativity and the cognitive-emotional-manipulative act itself is an affective experience. What makes it so rich is not just the joy it can bring, but the hard work, frustration, and self-doubt that leads to a fully realized final product saturated with agony and pride. But the boundaries that define “creativity” have been made elastic––bastardized as it has entered vernacular––and loosened to encompass pseudo-intellectual work.
Mediocrity proliferates at the behest of self-publishing media platforms where users trade social currency as ‘merit’. Novelty and notoriety have replaced artisan craft, formal education, and slow journalism. For that matter anything that requires rumination, craft and hence time and perseverance, a kind of delightful penance, has lost meaning in the attention-gig-or whatever new term comes up-economy. Here, creativity is abused to describe, and finish describing, as an act of emotional release or freedom from restriction. Notwithstanding what follows as a lifelong process, a complex, multifaceted phenomenon.
Think about terracotta clad institutional architecture, fast fashion, creature features with no allegory, influencer skin care, chain restaurants, and contemporary art that masquerades as ‘deep’ when the composition is formulaic, ready-made language.
The late educational psychologist, Dr. James Rhodes, is credited with a pioneering concept regarding creativity as a fabric of four individual, distinct strands––the “Four P’s.” The first strand is the “person,” which deals with the maker’s unique human qualities and personal attributes. The second strand, “process,” includes the traditionally accepted steps of preparation, incubation, inspiration, and verification. The third strand is “press.” Broadly, this refers to the relationship between the maker and a synthesis of personal experiences with external stimuli. And it is often where dissonance occurs as one’s self-image is threatened by external feedback, or their internal dialogue leads to an inflated ego. The fourth and final strand is described as “product.” These are the artifacts of thoughtful making––ideas communicated to other people through a chosen medium that have value beyond the exercise of just creating.
The assumption of greatness has been institutionalized by some parties, often self-serving groups, that are not willing to reconcile their cognitions with the reality of their merit, or lack thereof, because there is no accountability to do so. Perhaps because their “product” has been commodified or doesn't require a synthesis of the “Four P’s” to garner likes, clicks, or sales. Simply put, that disconnect or dissonance, occurs in that space between one’s assertion of greatness and one’s grasp on the reality of their work. While seemingly counterintuitive, shortcomings must be acknowledged to elevate work beyond the mediocre.
For that matter anything that requires rumination, craft and hence time and perseverance, a kind of delightful penance, has lost meaning in the attention-gig-or whatever new term comes up-economy.
American social psychologists including Elliot Aronson, Leon Festinger, and George Goethals have contributed to the current understanding of dissonance theory, which emphasizes the essential interaction of human motivation and cognition. Those not open to criticism or incapable of using it constructively will find ways to justify their actions and protect their perceived sense of self. And as more creative commodities flood markets and screens, those on the receiving end become less critical, nuanced consumers of that creative product.
The arrogant often label negative feedback an impediment to creative thinking while others use it to inform their work. But in fact, creatives on a quest for meaning build a cognitive “toolbox” from research, feedback, and the iterative process. They develop a diverse, personal repertoire of effective ideation techniques that comes from a painstaking process of mistake and subsequent discovery. Hungry creators and hungry thinkers make the accumulation of thinking tools a priority. Resistance to opinion and historical context keeps the mediocre from broadening the way they conceptualize their work. It becomes redundant, reductive, or formulaic. Meaningful creations come from a deliberate concretization of insight.
Rooted in mediocrity, arrogance is an overgrowth of pride that turns putrid with a stench worse than failure, but when cultivated with humility can bear the fruits of authenticity and wisdom. Yet the latter is vilified, cast as weakness, a vice. The metric for greatness is not financial or material success, nor is it social prowess. It is measured in consciousness and empathy––something that comes from allowing mediocrity to bloom.