On Privilege and Mediocrity

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A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

It is a common experience for young musicians to be feted as local stars in their school years, then arrive in Higher Education as a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. The ‘oh shit’ moment they experience when they discover this sudden shift in relative status is what drives their move to the next level up, reconfiguring themselves as adult artists.

(From which we also note that the crucial shift from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is not merely a cognitive stage in the learning process, it can reach deep into people’s sense of self-identity.)

My current hypothesis is that the affirmations people receive through social privilege insulate them from self-doubt, as they serve to inhibit or totally prevent the experience of inferiority. They therefore don’t really experience this sudden shift of perspective when moving into a world of higher-level achievement, and thus fail to realise how much work they need to do to match these new norms.

Part of me thinks this must be a really nice way to live. If you think about how much emotional and attentional energy self-doubt eats up, it must enormously freeing not to have to deal with it.

But thinking about the relationship between confidence and mediocrity makes me wonder whether quite so many social advantages piled up together might also produce some unhelpful side-effects. I have found that the people I have taught who fit this profile can be relatively impermeable to advice – without self-doubt, they don’t feel the need to take feedback to heart. They end up rather disappointed with the marks they receive, while their teachers end up rather disappointed with the relative lack of development in people who appeared, on arrival, so promising.

I’m not sure what, if anything, to do with these reflections. Self-awareness is very much a horse-to-water kind of a skill. As one of my more percipient students onceput it: ‘If I weren’t self-aware, how would I know?’

Still, for all of us who experience periodic bouts of impostor syndrome, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that, whilst self-doubt is not the pleasantest experience, it is at least a signal that we are open to the possibility that we could do better.

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