The New Excellence

Ever since I was very small, internist I have always been terribly average. From professional and academic performance to cookery and cleanliness, I’ve marked every dominion with bog-standard effort.

Oh, okay. You’ve got me. This is a false modesty; a conceit produced to provoke a disagreement along the lines of, “No, Helen. You’re not average!”. It’s true, I’m not. In several ventures, in fact, I fall well below the median.

By the time I was ten, I had distinguished myself in the fields of ballet, tunnel-ball and Roman Scripture as extraordinarily shit. By fifteen, I had notched up notable failures in the areas of abstinence, sobriety and actually going to school.

By thirty, I had accumulated more negative performance reviews than, I’d venture, any other employee in the history of Australian media and now, as I enter midlife, I continue an impressive track record of failure in the realms of home ownership, correctly completed BAS statements and mowing the effing lawn.

Otherwise, though, I’m very average.

Of course, most people are average. Average, as you know, is a single value intended to represent and typify a large set of unequal values. Ex vi termini, most of us are average.

N.B. As I am average, I had to look up “ex vi termini”. Further, this took me half an hour.

Despite our great and crushing average-ness, we’ve all come to suspect that we are special. We buy bespoke shoes and customisable smart-phones and subscriptions to posh magazines to convince ourselves that we are something other than typical. And, even if we do dare to acknowledge our ordinary qualities, there’s a very good chance we’ll have children just so that we can boast that they are above average or, more commonly, “gifted”.

Poor children. Our fear of mediocrity is most clearly played out in our governance of them. In the schoolyard we have seen a new, flavourless language colonise the tongues of teachers. It is there that the word “failure” has been reborn as “deferred success” and “average” or “satisfactory” appears as hyperbole. It’s entirely acceptable to call an average kid “exceptional”. Apparently, it’s good for his self-esteem.

But, I doubt that it’s any good for his evolution. Of course, we should not shame children. But nor should we discourage them by applauding their half-arsed efforts as outstanding.

In the effort to make every child feel special, red pens have been set aside for their “confronting” colour and awards of merit are given to all. Now that Every Child Wins a Prize in Grade 5, more grown children expect the same reward. In journalism, in the corporation and, apparently, in Parliament, we’ve lost the taste for brilliance.

In Australia, our leaders and commentators are a pretty average bunch whose “deferred excellence” suffices.

With the death of merit came the birth of self-esteem. Between push-button publishing and the elevation of the airhead to celebrity, we’ve entered an era where mediocrity rules and excellence makes us all feel uneasy.

In our age of relativism, the blog is equal to the newspaper, reality TV is equal to the Bard and shit will do just as well as Shinola. In our abject fear of the ordinary and in our considerate attempts to flatter every bugger no matter his ordinary talents, we do not create excellence.

Now that average is the new excellent, all we do is inhabit the top of the bell-curve with poop.

The only endeavour left in which success and failure is unambiguous is sport. And this may explain why I have recently become so interested in football.

This was initially published in The Big Issue. Helen Razer, for her sins, is a fan of the St Kilda Football Club.

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