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28 December 2010 | Society

A group of anonymous people

There are many criticisms I have of my former secondary school, but in spite of that I do remember some exceptional teachers whose influence I still feel today, more than two and a half decades later. They were erudite, certainly, and often charismatic. But above all, their lasting legacy can be summed up by two words: excellence and individualism.

I am one of those people who were brought up with the notion that we should, consciously and continuously, strive to better ourselves - sharpen our intellect, develop our knowledge and deepen our skills. Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that one of the people featuring high on my list of truly inspirational ideal is Leonardo da Vinci. For many, he embodies the Renaissance man par excellence (pun intended): seeking to understand the world and the universe, using that knowledge to build technologies that will improve our lives, support our creativity and create enlightened societies.

This education and background means I have broad interests well beyond my chosen career domain. I'm an avid reader and find great joy in delving deep into various topics. Self-evidently, it is no longer possible for a single person to understand all of human knowledge to the deepest level or to master every subject. But, I do believe it is possible to be a more rounded, better informed individual by making an effort to actually understand things, rather than simply undergo them. Perhaps more importantly, it's such great fun!

However, I can't escape the impression that over the last decades, society is less and less promoting the ideas of empowering through knowledge and striving to excellence. We now seem to embrace the average, indulge in mediocrity. I was once told that my aspirations to hire brilliant people were dangerous, as the organisation would become dependent on them. It seemed to escape my interlocutor that only talented people would be able to deliver the excellence we needed to do exceptional things. Or perhaps, he was just like so many others who seem to think that brilliance in others is a threat to one self?

There is still admiration for some people with extraordinary capacities, especially in sports. At the same time, most dislike those who know better. Standing out from the crowd, being different, is often a cause for hostility. So, being more committed, better informed, more aware has become a reason for enmity. Middle of the road is far less threatening.

The Internet, such a potential source for information and enlightenment is at the same time a vehicle for every idiot to have their say, and the less they actually know about something, the keener they seem to be to vent their opinions. That perhaps strengthens the erroneous notion that all opinion is of equal value. Television is dominated by (cheap to make) reality television these days. Maybe as a result we feel less unhappy about our shortcomings (as well as succumbing to the all too human properties of curiosity and voyeurism)?

In business, we find an ever growing herd of mindless MBA sheep who, ironically in light of their titles, seem to think less and less for themselves and instead just repeat the fashionable mantras du jour from their management magazine. Politicians are also keen to portray themselves as just "ordinary" people, after all that's popular with the electorate. Do we really prefer people who are "common" to run the country, as opposed to those who are the most capable?

Well, I said that apart from my early indoctrination into the dogma of aspiring to ever improve, I was also seduced by the notion of individualism. I'm afraid I often don't fit the stereotype and in addition I have an active dislike of herd mentalities. It should therefore not come as a surprise to hear that I don't subscribe to the views that "average is good enough" as a senior manager once told me. We should be actively promoting people to learn, to take pride in becoming the best they can, rather than just good enough to get away with. It doesn't matter whether or not their best is in intellectual endeavours, crafts or practical abilities, or the arts. It does matter however that everyone feels they should be the best they can be. It is time we become a meritocracy, rather than a mediocracy.