The kind of person we seek, said the personnel manager, is the one who is perfectly content with his living wage and to do the same thing over and over again. If an applicant showed the faintest sign of ambition, he was immediately rejected.
We are inclined to look down on or even despise people without ambition, but unless we want a world in which everyone is frustrated and resentful, we need them, these unambitious types without special talent. We do not want frustrated geniuses shining our shoes or stacking shelves in supermarkets.
There is nothing wrong, then, with mediocrity and lack of talent. It is an essential ingredient of the human mix. Where it becomes dangerous is where it is combined with ambition, as it seems to be nowadays. The world pullulates as never before—or so it seems to me—with the mediocre who are avid for power.
In his diary, Eric Hoffer noted that the education explosion and advanced technology had produced “hordes of educated nobodies who want to be somebodies and end up being mischief-making busybodies.” He obviously hadn’t seen anything yet. Now, there are millions of educated nobodies who think of themselves as pundits, policy advisers and budding celebrities. It’s only my subjective recollection, of course, but when I was coming of age, it seemed like the widely-shared understanding of the good life was to have a rich inner life — if necessary, in stark contrast to an unremarkable outer appearance. Maybe these things move in predictable cycles, and the early ’90s was just the valley in between the hyper-political peaks of the ’60s and our current decade. It may have been somewhat romantic to scorn wealth, fame and power in favor of personal meaning and modest contentment, but I’ll always prefer it to the contemporary “engagé and enragé” ideal.