Plundering Language in the Name of Performance

Do we really redeem language from safe mediocrity when we allow superlatives to flow like water, rather than wine.

We have created the language equivalent of a European wine lake, devalued or even unvalued, only fit to be washed down the sink hole of hyperbole.

If just about everything is “awesome” then a real sense of awe becomes lost and elusive. Soon, expectations becomes so lowered that mediocrity becomes relabelled as excellence, and a protective social collusion grows around it.

It’s all over the place, in management and motivation speak, and especially in the digital realm. The goal is excellence, but not a sacred excellent, a mysterious excellence; instead it is an excellence that involves hitting profit targets or getting ten out of ten on customer feedback surveys. By diminishing excellence and plundering just about every superlative in the name of positive spin, we lose the realm of authentic idealism, our dreams become over-materialised “goals”, and we create over-big targets that, when we hit them, are bulls-eyes the size of moons.

I’m disappointed that excellence has been so misused, largely by a kind of ignorant, desperate optimism. Life seems such a struggle these days for people that, a bit like a striving child, we say “that’s brilliant!” when they manage to stay half on their bike for three seconds. It’s so easy to fall into that ripping of language from its true meaning in the service of motivation and alleviating the pain of tough existence. “Excellent” then becomes a warm motivator, yet with diminishing returns. Soon we consciously and sub-consciously stop believing each other when we use superlatives to describe the “fairly good” or the “quite poor”. Not using superlatives becomes a kind of meanness, a betrayal of the motivation party that all the “cool” people are rocking to. But get this: The over-use of superlatives to big up and motivate individuals and teams ultimately demotivates them in the long run. Each “amazing” dilutes over time, its value  and the trust in it diminishing over time until its value reaches almost zero.

In search of excellence, true excellence eludes us, because it is a sublime state, too easily framed as elitist I admit – but still, a rare place, a place that can be gorgeous because it represents true potential in a process of realising itself. No, a video of a cat falling off a fridge and doing two back flips is NOT awesome. And a fairly okay karaoke rendition by our niece of an Beyonce song, is not “amazing”. By calling it these things, we diminish the original effort and striving. It becomes almost impossible NOT to, because we are social beings and everyone else is doing it. But we steal dreams and real potential from our kids by mislabelling Base Camp One as the Summit. many end up parked for two long with their flag planted in the foothills, stuck in a collusion of mediocrity and wretched contentment (Often for the rest of their lives.)

Excellence is not always higher up; sometimes it is further in, or deeper, or more subtle, or more mysterious, a revealing story. Excellence tends to reveal rather than show as a clumsy beacon. Awesome requires real awe.

Saying something is amazing is simply a lie if 1. It isn’t amazing to a common sense bunch of people and 2. if you don’t truly find it amazing. Even if the motive is to motivate, you’ll be drawing upon a well that will start to run dry very quickly. The Greatest Show on Earth ought to be just that. I’m a regular attendee and writer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The hype and hyperbole there maxed out years ago and nobody really believes anybody. Press releases have run out of words and it is the grapevine that has more cred than the official media. And even the various grapevines have disappeared under their own stinking piles of bullshit years ago. Why does that matter? It matters because it affects performance. People believe their own hype and the “amazings” fed to them by their collusive communities. We no longer no what good really is and, as for great, we stopped believing in that years ago as well. Yet, at the world’s biggest arts festival, there is greatest. Occasionally. And it usually emanates from those who have learned to see through the hype and whose (at least private) conversations are grounded not in the compulsive superlative, but in the accurate real. Having interviewed hundreds of performers, the mostly genuinely excellent ones have either stay in the realm of, or rediscovered, the power of truthful naming.

Of course, the constant repetition and escalation of superlatives, in marketing terms, can be an effective form of self- and other- hypnosis. It can create compliant behaviour, grounded in the notion that, if you tell a lie often enough, it might just get believed as the truth. If you can also manipulate people to lower their expectations, they may even have a semi-authentic experience of mediocrity as “excellent”, having forgotten long ago (or never been permitted to encounter) what excellence really is. We all simply become hypnotised into what Pink Floyd called a state of being “comfortably numb”.

I believe that organisational performance is parked in mediocrity most of the time. It’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, because the true-naming of excellence is seen as a kind of “spoiling tactic” and the namer will soon find themselves labelled as a “downer”, a “misery guts”, a “spoiler”.

Yet excellence is more beautiful when it is truly, and rarely achieved. Excellence isn’t the highest bar, but that which is celebrated as realised potential. It often surprises us. It’s better for not being “harnessed”. We should harness our creative will and energy in the service of opening space for our potential to unfold. Excellence may lie along that path. It will be relative in certain places at certain times. When we raise the bar, it is because we realise our potential is revealing further possibility and vision. When we call the imperfect “perfect” there’s both a truth and a lie in that; there’s a perfection in our human striving, a beauty in the climb, the journey, the struggle. We are perfect in that we are born imperfect – and that creates possibility. But there’s also a different perfect which is there as an ideal, something metaphysical. That perfection is not easily to be found in a burger, a new fizzy drink, nor a business goal and our over-needy misnaming of it as “excellent”, “amazing” or “awesome”, does not make it so, and it often does erode belief in our deeper intuited ideals. That authentic perfection is diverse, elusive, and all the better for not being plundered into the mundane.

Truthful use of language requires more effort. It requires courage. To be delighted with “a bit better”, to strive for “improvement”, and to celebrate “an impressive effort” all appear bland in the face of “amazing” and “awesome”. Yet when we use words in all their specific variety, when we get used to the precision of describing our reality, we quickly find that energy is realised. It’s the energy of REAL potential. it’s the motivation to be truthfully on the “road” to the best we can endeavour to be.

The language of the “middle” isn’t the language of mediocrity. It’s of the language of reality, closer to the human condition, a more courageous and helpful description of where we are on our journey. The philosophies born on the ’70’s and ’80s of TOTAL quality management and CONTINUOUS improvement, represented (and still conceptually do) a relentless (even hopeless) journey towards an inhuman and unattainable destination. Innovation is actually more exciting than perfection; creativity is more compelling than absolute excellence. Excellence can be an ideal, but is cheapened and “dragged earthwards” when turned into a coarse artifact for the purposes of marketing or pushy  motivation. The gentle breeze can be as refreshing as the storm, and a storm is not a hurricane. Our language is exciting, almost infinite and nuanced. Plundering it in the name of quick win performance is, ultimately, sad and disappointing, self-defeating and self-deluding.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Kathleen says:

    I really like this Paul. I particularly like the concept that, ” Innovation is actually more exciting than perfection; creativity is more compelling than absolute excellence.” This is how I think of Shakespeare. A lot of his writing is corny, humdrum and bawdy to appeal to the masses (although I quite like corny and bawdy). But amid that are moments of true beauty, not necessarily couched in high flown words, but in genuine emotion (for example Romeo’s speech when he thinks he will never see Juliet again because he is banished). If Shakespeare had worried about the “audience” all the time, then his genuine genius may not have surfaced.
    I also agree about the hyperbole. Having performed in the Fringe myself (TWO), I know we “stretched” the truth on our posters to entice an audience in. However, I maintain we gave them a strong performance and a tender story they enjoyed none-the-less.

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