This year I turned 42. A recurring thought I have had for the last 12 years or so, has been about success and making my way in the world. How do I stand compared with other people? And when I confront this question, a few serendipitous thoughts swirl in circles of torment.
There are, of course, points of comparison so extreme and deflating that they can be written off as outliers. Irving Thalberg at the age of 24 was running MGM and pioneering the modern way of producing movies. Mark Zuckerberg famously became a self-made billionaire at the tender age of 23. Then there’s Tony Blair who, at just one year my senior, was elected to run Great Britain.
These examples are so exceptional that they hardly matter, even if they still pinch a little. The more wounding comparisons are always closer to home: people you went to school or university with and are self-evidently more successful; people in your family who had achieved more by the same age. A few months ago someone new was appointed to the top team of management where I work; they were the second person to achieve that exalted rank at five years my junior.
Comparisons are always dangerous and usually don’t end well. No two people are the same after all. But it’s always where you are closer to a like-with-like comparison, however qualified, that the morbid front of depression sets in. The two people in my senior management team were no better educated, for example. And yet they are where they are and I am where I am.
Ability, luck, character, determination, confidence – these, and more, are all factors. But so is choice and the choices that are available to you. I couldn’t honestly say that I chose not to be successful any more than I chose to be successful and failed. In reality, my professional life has been an act of stumbling forward blindly.
For all my hesitation and lack of clarity, I am very clear about one thing: looked at objectively I am a mediocrity. And I am mediocre in many different ways. I am a middle manager. I work in a creative field, but I have never worked for a well-known company, a big agency, or for any famous brands. What I do matters, but within a relatively narrow sphere of interest.
Then there’s the real metric of success – money. I remember that, in the Alexander Payne film Sideways, the central character, Miles, underlines his under-achievement, by saying something like ‘You’re nothing if you don’t have money after 30.’ I can’t claim that I am struggling, but I certainly can’t claim that I ‘have money’ in the sense that I take Miles to mean it.
Where I have found myself in middle age fits neatly with the potential I exhibited at school. So much so, that you might even say that my society has, objectively speaking, done justice to my potential. I did well at school, but I could always point to peers, friends and relations who did better and who, it seemed, were destined for greater things. The policy makers, statisticians and economists can record my story – or wave it off since it’s basically not very interesting – as a life which has followed a measurable and predictable trajectory.
Except there was one crucial way in which I bucked the bovine, dull-eyed mean. I went to a state school. Which I hated. I wasn’t interested in anything the teachers taught me. The ethos was what I would call utilitarian: as a student you were required to make a rational choice about what was in your own interest. If you chose to apply your intelligence and you had the right potential, you would go to a good university and then you would become an accountant. That was the underlying assumption of my education. Which meant that I pretty much slept through most of it.
But in my late teens, entirely from my own curiosity, I got interested in philosophy and religion. In the sixth form I took an A-level in the subject, and my enthusiasm began to spill over into other areas. Which meant that I did much better than anyone was expecting (most of all myself). And it ultimately meant that my teachers advised me to apply to the University of Cambridge to study Theology and Religious Studies. Since almost no-one from state school applies to Cambridge to study Theology, I was admitted.
The success didn’t stop there. For each year of the Tripos, I got better as my confidence, enthusiasm and feel for the subject grew. In the end I did well enough to study for an MPhil in Philosophical Theology. Which means that as well as being a middle-aged mediocrity, I also have two degrees from an elite university.
Even now, I think of university as a happy time, not because it was one non-stop party but because it was one of the few times in my life where I felt I came alive. I spent most of it alone, reading obscure books which made me reflect and opened my mind to new ways of thinking. But the person I was becoming struggled to find a place in the ‘real’ world and was in conflict with the general direction of travel. It seemed to me that the same ethos I had seen at school was at work. Most of my peers were a 50:50 mix of entrants from good state schools or good but low-key independent schools. And most of them were on the same path: a 2:1, then a short trip to London, where they would take up one of the professions. They were people from largely similar backgrounds being factory farmed for the usual places: the law, journalism, the civil service, the media, and so on.
I have never managed to sustain the same enthusiasm I found in the sixth form and at university. Instead, I have lapsed into the lacklustre blob I was as a teenager. I never went to London and I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finally graduated. My only leaning, though it was very vague, was towards publishing. In that very vague way, I drifted and the pedestrian living I make from it is commensurate with my motivation.
My use of the word ‘mediocrity’ implies an objective standard that operates with ruthless reality. I know it applies to me because I can point to many, many things which lead to that conclusion. I know people who would understand my career, what I earn, even my character and lifestyle in those terms. And my raw academic ability, subjected to the functional assessment it received at school, shows that I am unremarkable. There is even a certain sense in which the subject I studied at university is considered mediocre – I was told, anecdotally but by someone well-informed, that among some high-powered companies they screen their lists of applicants by removing all the Theology graduates.
The point that strikes me is that had I simply been allowed to develop my character and natural interests, I would never have understood myself in the way I have outlined here – who would, after all? The sense I have of being average or mediocre is engineered, and it has been engineered and instilled from a very early age; I would say from around the age of twelve. It is, to all intents and purposes, a story written into the fabric of our society, or perhaps even our political economy. We have an implied set of values which determine what it means to succeed; and that idea of success is peculiarly intellectual. If you know anything about the history of ideas, you might even say that it is gnostic or dualistic.
David Goodhart in his book, Head, Hand, Heart has written eloquently and with a sense of sceptical polemic along these lines. Success in our society, he suggests, is first about academic achievement as a precursor to unlocking access to the professions. The liberal, progressive spin on this notion of success is to ensure that as many people as possible are included in the opportunities which make it happen – hence the New Labour policy to achieve 50 per cent access to higher education, a policy only reified by subsequent administrations.
The effect has been to cement a divergence between those with cognitive skills and those with more practical or vocational skills, a divergence which plays out in many ways: political resentment as economic benefits accrue to those with the education to flourish in a knowledge economy; a brain drain from depressed former industrial areas, with the effect that key parts of the country feel marginalised and left behind; and a flattening in the value of a degree, in which the country has more graduates but fewer with skills to meet the real-world needs of employers.
Goodhart’s argument, at a broad level, is a call for greater diversity. Not necessarily the sort of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’ of identity the champions of which have become increasingly shrill and entangled in a culture war spoiling with unhinged and entitled remonstrances. But instead a form of diversity which recognises and encourages different ways in which people can flourish, some academic (head), others vocational (hand), and others compassionate (heart). This, it is suggested, is a better match with the needs of society and more suited to the spectrum of aptitudes which occur naturally.
Already the kind of argument that Goodhart makes has won some traction in government, and embattled policy experts now defend the increased energy expended on developing vocational routes through the education system, while liberals double down on the sort of ‘double liberalism’ under increasing scrutiny through arguments like Head, Hand, Heart.
If I think about my own experience, a kind of schizophrenia is at work (not the sort of sentence you should generally write publicly): in public terms, in economic terms, in the ‘hegemonic’ language of our liberal economy, I am firmly in the ‘Head’ category, basically pretty successful, but nothing exceptional – a modest example of achievement. I am not unhappy with this result. It seems okay. I could have done a lot worse. But beneath the cold veneer of the felicitus calculus, I can see someone who feels half-alive, or turned on its head, half-way dead. I can recognise from my fleeting experience as a student, a character that might have been but isn’t, a part of me that still fights for life in the spare moments I have but can never quite find the time.
The sense, to give an analogy, is of a body with a section of muscles toned and developed from regular use, but in which the rest of it has withered from under-use, leaving a strangely distorted or misshapen creature and only a spectral intimation of what it might have been. In the terms of my metaphor, I just want my body to come alive, rather than shuffle about in its animal pen. This thing-that-might-have-been is also bounded and particular. I have no ambitions to become a chief economist, a judge or a particle physicist. Quite apart from anything else I would hate to be any of those things, and I am not, by nature, someone drawn to the high-powered, high-octane, high-status world of high achievers. I don’t want to make anything possible, just feel the edges of my potential, to stretch my muscles.
The frustrated sense of ‘flourishing’ and dignity I can intuit, is then a subtle thing and emphatically not the sort of reductive, spreadsheet-thinking which undergirds current notions of meritocratic success. Merit should not be measured by money, status, or a degree. It is not, and can never be, bound by a univocal measure. To flourish is the business of the whole person – their personal circumstances, their relationships with family, friends, community, their natural aptitudes and predilections. Success or flourishing, by this reckoning, is not purely analytic. It is a function of character. And character is something as myriad and complex as life itself, which will always retreat beyond the horizon of any one attempt at understanding. Or, in philosophical terms, Descartes was just plain wrong.
Goodhart’s book, through careful social and political analysis, refracts the case for supporting a spectrum of skillsets which occur naturally. But the implications of his research are not that policy makers – and those in education policy especially – should replace academic achievement with a wider range of categories in which to succeed. His research implies that we should adopt a degree of scepticism towards all attempts that forcibly engineer people into determinate categories. Instead, we should, with a little more humility, make more effort to cultivate the complexity and richness of human character in our midst.
Most people, like myself, would know where they fit within the hierarchies of rank that a meritocratic liberalism engenders, and most people would be forced to acknowledge their relative mediocrity. Mediocrity, it might be said, is the inevitable corollary of an impersonal objective standard – or turned on its head, all attempts to measure the value of human lives by an objective standard lead to a perverse kind of elitism. Perverse because, as Michael Sandel has shown, success by this measure is very rarely truly meritocratic and often (hypocritically) not at all objective. No doubt Harvard graduates work very hard, but the idea they all start from a level playing field is ludicrous. My experience at university suggested that a large number of those on the conveyor belt to the professions benefited from natural intelligence and diligence married to a soft hinterland of privilege.
Mediocrity and egregious inequalities are the price of a cold and adamantine mindset. But life, in all its forms, is still striving to make itself known, however occluded and eccentric the heights of ‘success’ make it seem. I sometimes think our country looks a little like my backyard: paving slabs through the cracks of which wildlife is trying to grow.