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Congratulations, You're Mediocre -- Now What to Do (hint: Bodhidharma and Jack Black would approve..!)

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The presidential election was all about jobs. "The number one issue here at home is jobs," Martha Raddatz of ABC News proclaimed during the Biden/Ryan debate -- a sentiment that was echoed by Candy Crowley and Bob Schieffer when moderating Obama and Romney. The American job market is looking a little stronger since then with job numbers and the unemployment rate for November 2012 displaying slight improvements according to the latest numbers from the Department of Labor. Yet, it remains pivotal to look beyond incremental improvements in these numbers and focus on the fundamental reasons for an unemployment rate just shy of 8 percent. Although better off than Europe, the U.S. must face the threat of accelerating erosion in competitiveness compared to emerging economies. On this account, Europe is no benchmark. In Spain the unemployment rate has exceeded 25 percent -- and more than 50 percent among people under the age of 25.

This comes as no surprise when you follow stats such as OECD's international student assessment (PISA) where the U.S. ranks 17, and my home country Denmark comes in at a modest 24. Number one? Shanghai/China followed by Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The trend is no different if turning focus from student assessment to innovation; according to the 2012 Global Innovation Index developed by Insead and the World Intellectual Property Organization, the U.S. has dropped from a No. 1 position in 2007 to 10th today.

What's happening? Rampant self-deception. And it's partly responsible for the decline of Western economies. Quick question: Who's better on the job -- you or your colleagues? According to the book How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich:

Ninety-four percent of university professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues. Twenty-five percent of college students believe they are in the top 1% in terms of their ability to get along with others. Seventy percent of college students think they are above average in leadership ability. Only two percent think they are below average.

This is our sense of realism. Admit it -- where did you rank yourself?

We tend to think of ourselves as more talented, knowledgeable, and indispensable than others. The danger of this inflated self-image is thinking we don't need to work harder than our competition. Is that the case between the U.S. and China? Admitted, the American GDP (PPP) per capita is approximately six times that of the Chinese -- but 30 years ago the difference was approximately 48 times. I submit: Indolence and complacency.

What should be done? I agree with Edward Hadas who, when blogging on Reuters, suggests that the answer is not to "show more confidence in American greatness." Instead, the U.S. should, as should any other nation, recognize reality. "The truth may be painful, but it is better to know," according to Hadas. In essence, this is what enlightenment is all about. Witness Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk living during the 5th and 6th century CE, according to whom "not creating delusions is enlightenment."

Comedic actor Jack Black serves as an unlikely agent of enlightenment: Quoted directly, he states: "When I was a kid, I thought I was the strongest man in the world. Then, the fastest runner. And then, the smartest person in the world. One by one my delusions got shut down. Now I just see myself as the lamest guy in the world."

I know a thing or two about delusion and mediocrity. As a youngster, I was determined to become a professional soccer player. Yet not even the requisite Malcolm Gladwell Outliers 10,000 hours made it so. Eventually I accepted my mediocre talent on the pitch and instead enrolled in college. Then as a freshman, I proudly proclaimed my goal of reinventing philosophy. My dyslexia disagreed. I did earn that philosophy degree, but it took working far harder to compensate for what was, in fact, a deficiency in an academic context. Most importantly though, acknowledging my deficiency and working that much harder led to realizing the full value and potential of philosophy -- hence my goal today: to revolutionize the corporate world by means of philosophy.

So if by chance you are confronted with your own mediocrity, there's something you can do (although it may be a uncomfortable). Say what I say:

  • I am imperfect and fallible -- and that makes me dispensable and replaceable in all aspects of life;
  • I have only a few, if any, inherent talents -- and that neither enthusiasm nor will can compensate for hard work;
  • I am dependent upon others -- and my self-glorification seems to close rather than open their arms to me; and
  • I am genetically programmed and socially inclined to follow the stream rather than maintain my integrity -- and that, each and every day of my life, I need to struggle hard to be honest rather than deceitful.

That wasn't easy. But once acknowledging our weaknesses and vulnerability, we stand a much better chance of becoming industrious, productive, and ambitious in everything that we do. It takes facing our delusion and resisting the easy comfort of complacency and replacing it with a sense of urgency and an appetite for hard work and never-ending improvement. We must "stay hungry," as the late Steve Jobs put it in his legendary 2005 Stanford commencement speech.

So maybe Jack Black isn't the strongest, fastest or smartest. But he isn't the lamest either. Sans delusions, Black faced his mediocrity and fervently applied his talent toward his unique comedic styling. Bodhidharma would approve! Welcome to what I call the "Enlightenment Economy," where self-insight, honesty, and humility are the catalysts for realizing opportunities of the future. The rise of China and India and the precipitous decline of Western economies make it impossible for us to ignore our mediocrity. We know what to do next.