Is mediocrity the new excellence?

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I was flying back home from an aviation safety seminar last weekend and was reading a book that I had won at from a drawing at the conference.  A coveted prize mind you as it is rare that I ever win any prizes!

The book’s primary message is a about professionalism and what struck me was a section titled, “Mediocrity is the new excellence”.   The author told a story about his visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He saw an upper class cadet with a yellow and black button on his backpack that read, “Mediocrity is the new excellence”.  The author took it upon himself to ask the upper classman what it meant.  The cadet had told him the academy has three core values:

  • Integrity first
  • Service before self
  • Excellence in all we do

According to the author, the cadet stated he had been somewhat disappointed with several of his recent training experiences and the yellow button was just his way of protesting the decline of excellence he was experiencing. The author’s intent wasn’t to comment on the overall excellence of the USAFA (which provides one of the finest college educations in the world) but rather to illustrate that mediocrity is permeating our culture even at the highest levels. I have seen this first hand in my children’s education, the quality of services and goods that I consume, the debauchery of our public servants, and also in our training/learning industry.

At the conference I was attending, one of the major issues confronting business aviation was the human element. In fact, one of the panel discussions of the leaders in aviation was on “What makes you lay awake on night?”  The one topic discussed that kept these leaders awake at night was that of human factors in the cockpit.  Although the accident rates in business aviation industry are on par and possibly better than commercial aviation, approximately 80% of the mishaps that do occur are still attributed to human factors. Even though this is a major concern, the business aviation industry only gives a slight “head nod” to CRM training, essentially a couple of hours of knowledge based content. Will this one-time inoculation of knowledge permeate our brain and behavior for the rest of their lives? Unfortunately, thinking that is an acceptable method of learning is mediocrity.

We spend years, if not decades, of our lives learning our trade whether it be piloting an aircraft, business acumen, medical doctor, accountant, or any other profession. However, where do we encounter most of our problems?  They are mostly (I would guess about about 80%) around the human element and not the specific skill of our trade. Yet how much time have we invested in our lifetime towards training in those human factor skills sets that are the primary causes of error, conflict, and mission/project failures…a couple of hours? If we realize where the majority of problems are occurring, yet we give it the least attention with the least effective method of learning… that is mediocrity!

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