I recently came back to Seattle after traveling for two weeks, and began eating simple, organic food again. I’m a vegetarian wherever I go, but I don’t always eat very well when I’m out around the world. After getting back on track after all the travel and different countries, I started feeling better within 24 hours.
The next morning I walked down the street to Espresso Splendido on Stone Way for a short 2% latte, and I suddenly remembered what good coffee tastes like. I hadn’t stopped drinking coffee on my trip—coffee is one thing you can find pretty much everywhere, in one form or another—but because of factors outside my control, I had stopped drinking good coffee, and I came to accept that mediocre coffee was just the way it had to be.
Against my better judgment, I had decided that mediocrity was acceptable. It even became the standard I expected to receive.
Something has happened in our modern world that threatens our very way of living. When it comes to paying for goods and services, we have completely altered our standards of what is acceptable and what is good.
The standard of good has been replaced by good enough, which is a way of justifying the mediocre. When we encounter the good enough standard on a regular basis, we come to accept it as normal.
Think about the default response to a typical question we get asked everyday. When someone asks you about your work, your grades, that new restaurant, or your life in general, what do we tend to answer?
Not bad. It’s OK. Could be worse.
If you drink enough bad coffee, you’ll gradually get used to it. Likewise, if you never experience something genuinely good to begin with—if you never eat real food, for example—you won’t know what you’re missing.
If a trip to the Chinese buffet or sushi from the grocery store are your only experiences with “foreign” foods, you won’t wish for anything else. No, they’re not at all like good food in China or good sushi, but if you don’t know any better, they work. They are good enough.
Nowhere is this principle more true than in the domestic travel industry these days.
Think about the last flight you took, especially if you live in the U.S. or Canada. What was the best thing you could say about it? Chances are it was something like this:
- It wasn’t too late
- They didn’t lose my bag
- They gave me half a bottle of water
- The security people did not confiscate my toothpaste
Unless you’ve flown on the new Virgin America, or the rare transcontinental flight that still provides a good experience, chances are you didn’t have an experience you can rave about.
Once you get used to the mediocre, anything just a little bit better will stand out.
In some industries, such as domestic airlines, if a company can provide services slightly above the standard of terrible, they’ll have a good chance of being successful. Southwest Airlines is a good example of this phenomenon. I know that some people will disagree, but Southwest is really a mediocre airline. They have succeeded in inspiring customer loyalty in large part because they do not suck as much as the traditional U.S. carriers do. Their mission statement consists of the usual corporate platitudes, but I think it could be something simpler:
Southwest: Not as bad as your other choices
Southwest: The Least Bad U.S. Airline
The Escape Route
To reverse the acceptance of mediocrity as the new standard, the only escape route is nonconformity through setting your own example of being the anti-mediocre.
Here’s a few ways to do that, and you can probably think of more.
1. Stop rewarding bad behavior. How many restaurants do you know that stay in business for years despite bad food and poor service? Yes, some of them will fail, but others manage to carry on in their carelessness, relaxed in the knowledge that they can continue the hit-or-miss record without any consequences.
2. Refuse to settle. This is hard, because the pressure to conform to mediocrity is all around us. But the more we settle, the more we accept the triumph of the good enough instead of the excellent.
3. Challenge yourself and others away from mediocrity. Stop asking, is it good enough? and start looking to a higher goal. Encourage others in the same fashion.
4. Model excellence. People will be amazed when you do this, in large part because it’s so unusual. Here’s two examples from the corporate world:
I heard the CEO of Headsets.com speak at a recent conference. He talked about rewarding failure at the company, and letting customers choose “Bill me” on the order form without conducting full credit checks. They had determined that the very few customers who take advantage of that are more than offset by the trust gained by the large majority of honest customers.
The day before, Tony Hsieh from Zappos.com spoke about the relentless customer service they seek to provide their customers. If they can’t find a particular shoe a customer wants, their reps will even go online to their competitors and help the customer get it. If a customer calls them asking for pizza delivery options in a remote city, the rep will look it up.
Examples like this in the corporate world are remarkable. They cut against the grain of everything we have come to expect from large companies. Against the standard of mediocrity, companies like Headsets.com, Zappos.com, and others (Netflix comes to mind), these companies have decided to actually be excellent.
What the Normalization of Mediocrity Means for You
JUST GOOD ENOUGH – If you have a mediocre product or service to offer the world, you are not alone. Your business might fail, but it also might succeed as long as you do something slightly different. Excellence is no longer required.
SLIGHTLY BETTER – If you can slightly edge out mediocrity, like Southwest Airlines has done, then your chances of success are even higher. People will look at you with fresh eyes, and some of them will even become intensely loyal.
EXCELLENT – But of course, the most interesting way is to truly go above and beyond both the new standard of good enough and the slightly better standard. If you can be truly remarkable, and actually do something good… then you can rule the world.
Zappos.com sells shoes on the internet. How boring is that? But this year they are on track to become a billion-dollar company.
And what about you?
Yes, I know that many of us don’t work in cubicles, for all kinds of good reasons. But because most corporations are so mediocre, we can all learn from the rare examples when they do something right.
Do you long for excellence in a world where mediocrity has been normalized?
In your own life and work, do you strive to provide excellence to others, or have you fallen into the same trap?
Image by Mercurian