I wrote this column a few years ago and I think it still holds up. Towering mediocrities are everywhere. You generally know who they are because you can’t believe how far a lack of talent combined with ceaseless ambition can take someone.
Every office has at least one untalented employee who has managed an inexplicable rise to the top. They all have one thing in common. They are all towering mediocrities.
What is a towering mediocrity? A towering mediocrity is someone who takes mediocre to new and less-exciting levels. When achieving above-average results requires one more hour of work and achieving below-average results requires all the intelligence of a lost sock, this employee splits the difference evenly. He never takes risks. He never screws up. He is deemed safe. Apply some strategic brown-nosing and suddenly management has an employee it can depend on–a permanent C-plus solution.
The reason I bring this up is because Ryan Seacrest has been in the news lately. (How’s that for a back-handed, backdoor lead?) In March Washington Post writer Tom Shales–who is to television what Roger Ebert is to movies–wrote a 2,800-word article on Ryan Seacrest and The Man, The Brand, The Plan To Rule TV.
The article was interesting for a couple reasons. First of all, if Shales is writing 2,800 words about your career it means you have gone through the stratosphere. It’s like making the cover of Sports Illustrated if you’re an athlete or getting your picture put up at the post office if you’re a felon. It is a public signal that you have arrived. There may be other carjackers, but you are the it carjacker.
The most interesting thing about the article is that Shales has written an almost-perfect manual on how to spot a towering mediocrity, both in the celebrity world and in your midst.
A towering mediocrity is not original
“One reason I started doing New Year’s Eve on Fox five years ago was because I wanted to create the perception that I could be the next Dick Clark,” says the 33-year-old host of Fox’s “American Idol,” television’s megahit. ” ‘American Idol’ is my ‘American Bandstand.’ Dick and I are actually partners in that New Year’s Eve show.”
“I had a total, 100 percent strategy to be the Dick Clark for our generation,” he says, “to be the Merv Griffin for our generation, to be the Larry King for our generation.”
Truly talented people don’t strive to be the someone else. They become the themselves of their generation. I am talking about original talents like Howard Stern, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, Margaret Thatcher, etc. If someone in your office says, “I want to be the next VP of operations Jerry Atwater,” that person is your office Seacrest.
A towering mediocrity sounds like an idiot when he brags
“It was a blessing for me that I knew exactly what my path was when I was 9 years old,” he says. “Everything I did, every detail, every step I took I knew was a step closer to what I wanted.
“I knew there’d be about 3 million steps, but I also knew I had to get through them.”
Really? You let your 9-year-old self dictate the course of your adult life? Nine-year-olds can barely read. Their bike-riding skills are shoddy at best. Many 9-year-olds require the use of a tee to hit a baseball. These are not people you should trust with your career, let alone a two-strike count with a stationary baseball resting before them.
A towering mediocrity has no meaningful skills
Remember that these two paragraphs were taken from a glowing profile.
It’s not that he’s multi-talented; he’s anti-talented, not a performer but a professional “personality,” the latest variation on a type as old as broadcasting: the guy who stands there and introduces the acts. He’s a low-key cheerleader who keeps the show moving and, with the judges as natural foils, allies himself with the audience and the contestants, never threatening to upstage the performers, even if he could…
Seacrest isn’t lovable, nor foolish enough to try to be. He’s just aiming for tolerable — bull’s-eye.
Shales might as well have written, “To his credit, Seacrest has never tried to shove the microphone directly up his own nose.”
Towering mediocrities have mantras that make no logical sense
“I don’t know everything, but I certainly want to try everything,” says the ultra-acquisitive hotshot. “I’ve lived that way all my life, and it’s gotten me this far.”
“I don’t know everything…”
First of all, no one knows everything. Why would you feel the need to say that, unless you are trying to appear humble in the face of your own awesomeness? It’s an ego trip line. What he is saying is “I am rich and successful, but I don’t know everything, which makes my richness and successfulness all the more amazing, because I did it on personal guile and instinct.”
“But I certainly want to try everything…”
No one wants to try everything. Would you like to try slicing a Golden Retriever puppy in half and feasting on its entrails? That’s a horrible thing. No one would try that. So don’t say you want to try everything because clearly you do not want to try puppy tartare.
“I’ve lived that way all my life, and it’s gotten me this far.”
In other words, knowing as much as the next guy knows and wanting to try everything but not actually trying everything has gotten me this far in life.
Towering mediocrities like to tell you they are very, very, very busy
Thus when asked whether there’s anything about himself he’d like to change, he pauses longer than most of us would but finally says: “I’d like an eighth day of the week — to go to the grocery store or take a walk on the beach, little things like that. Maybe go out and get some gas put in my cars since I don’t have time.” That’s right, he’s too busy to fill ‘er up: “I have someone who fills my tank because my day is so crowded, I can’t find 15 minutes to stop.”
When I get famous, here’s my stock answer for when an interviewer asks me if there is anything I would like to change about myself.
Joe stroked his powerful bicep for a moment longer than most of us would and said, “I’d like an eighth day of the week – to go shopping, take a walk in the park, start a garden, something nice like that. I suppose, while we’re at it, I’d also like a ninth day of the week so I can donate more time to my foundation that helps malnourished babies gain confidence. A 10th day would also be good because, and I don’t like to talk about this in public, but I’ve been financing a small team of researchers at the Cleveland Clinic who are making some real strides towards ending old-people cancer. I’d really like to get more hands-on with the research, the test tubes, the nitty-gritty. Right now I don’t even have time to use the toilet. One of my assistants changes my colostomy bag every half-hour. She sends its contents to an organic farm in Oregon every day at 5. I’d love to have the time to put my own feces and urine in the mail. Can’t. Just too busy.”
Towering mediocrities take lots of pride in using their common sense and/or showing just one ounce of initiative
He confesses to having been too “robotic” when he started out as “Idol” host (actually co-host, with a partner since jettisoned from the show). “I did something in the second year that helped a lot,” he says. “I took the IFB out of my ear.” The IFB is a tiny earphone that pipes control-room chatter and guidance from the producer into his head. “I took it out so the control room could not speak to me during the show, at least when we were live, and that helped a lot.
Office parallel: I did the whole presentation without PowerPoint. Fuck PowerPoint! I carved the pie charts and graphs into my chest with a rusty blade. We teleconferenced eight ways using a metal filling in one of my teeth. I used my bare ass as a whiteboard. No one can control me in a meeting. I am the meeting.
Towering mediocrities enjoy semi-risqué, ultimately safe banter with the boss
Of course the pot that gets stirred the most, and results in the snottiest or sparkliest moments, is the one from which judge Simon Cowell gets his wisecracks and insults, the ones aimed at Seacrest as well as at the aspiring performers. “Those moments are pretty real,” Seacrest says.
In lieu of contributing any actual ideas, there is always one guy who gives the boss a little bit of shit. This is basically all the guy can contribute to the company as far as you can tell – playfully knocking the boss down a few notches every now and then. He’s the company jester. The boss can’t fire him because he would look like a dick. So he has a job forever, for reasons that escape the entire office.
Towering mediocrities take no risks
My biggest problem with the Seacrests of the world are that they choose bland and safe over risky and interesting. In that sense, Seacrest is the perfect successor to Larry King, an interviewer who never met an interesting topic that he couldn’t suck every last ounce of entertainment from. When Paula Abdul went crazy and started hearing songs that did not exist on a recent episode of American Idol, Seacrest covered for her saying, “You’re seeing the future.” He completely glossed over the interesting reality of what was happening in front of him in order to keep the show moving, when clearly Paula’s insanity has been the most entertaining thing on Idol this year.
In all fairness to Seacrest, I think he is good at what he does, but the fact that he has risen to the stature of Hollywood heavy speaks more to the nature of what is acceptable on the public airwaves than the level of his own skills, such as they may be. A Ryan Seacrest, much like a newspaper or a shaving cream advertisement, is designed to appeal to the broadest number of people by not offending them or challenging them. They’re all perfectly mediocre.