I can’t stop thinking about the Peter Principle. As you may recall the Peter Principle attempts to explain the ubiquitous incompetence in the world around us. The theory is that we rise from positions of competence until we eventually reach our final level achievement: the place where we are in over our heads and can no longer move up. It is there where we remain, mired in misery as we try to fulfill duties we’re not equipped to fulfill. The theory focuses on the corporate hierarchy, but I think it’s applicable to our general station in life. It’s wry, dismal, plausible, and heavily weighted toward external forces “pushing” and “pulling” us up.
My questions are, what are the internal forces at work, why do we go along with it, and what’s the alternative?
I think it all boils down to our innate desire for achievement clashing with our definition of the very same. We’ve been ingrained since birth to “be all you can be,” “not be content with mediocrity,” “reach for the stars.” I used to think that was a worthy goal. Now I’m wondering if the well-intentioned message only legitimizes the impossible. Are we creating burdensome expectations for ourselves and our children? A collective mentality where we slander contentment by calling it stagnation?
It’s a scary prospect to be tasked with “reaching your full potential.” Especially when it’s nearly impossible to define. How do you know when you’ve reached it? According to the Peter Principle you don’t reach your maximum level of achievement until you crash and burn in massive failure. It’s sad, but makes sense. If you succeed, you’re only expected to succeed more, at a higher level. Eventually, it will be too much.
And if success is moving up, how do we explain the high rates of depression and dysfunction among those at the top. We aspire to emulate them, and use them as our gauges to measure success, but none of us wants the consequences of our ever-falling heroes. Maybe we’ve gotten our definition of success all wrong. Maybe we need to step back and start training ourselves to strive for contentment instead. See? I can hear the backlash already. “Are you saying it’s ok to tell your kids it’s fine to be retail clerks for the rest of their lives? What if they could be a neurosurgeon??” The short answer? Yes, I think I am ok with that.
If my son has the skills and abilities and wants to be a neurosurgeon, I will do everything I can to help him reach that goal. If he has the skills and abilities and wants to be a retail clerk, I will do everything I can to help him reach that goal. But I’ll tell you this much, I’d rather raise a happy, content retail clerk, than a miserable neurosurgeon. I’d also rather raise a happy, content neurosurgeon than a miserable retail clerk.
Ok, so how do we avoid a life of collective failure if we’re brainwashed to believe that unless we’re moving up, we’re not moving. Could I achieve higher ranks in the corporate world than I have? Probably. No, definitely. But I’d have to give up my writing, music, and relationship with my family to do it. That doesn’t seem like a logical trade-off to me. So why can’t I shake the culturally-accepted mislabel that I’ve stagnated? Because I know people who are “disappointed” that I didn’t achieve textbook success as society defines it. I don’t have an impressive business card. I don’t have letters with periods after my name. I could have, but I don’t.
It’s sad that I’m happy with my life, and only the errant notion that “I haven’t reached my full potential” is keeping me from being completely content. But what’s really waiting for me at my highest level? I don’t know, but I’m not convinced I should give up the blessings I have in the present for a possible future. Many people are in a position to pursue their “full potential” and advance our society, become our headlines, provide our entertainment. We can be grateful for them, but I don’t think we should envy or revere them.
Maybe one day there will be a way for me to investigate the possibilities of my own potential. Maybe I will be the headline I could probably be. Maybe I’ll be miserable there and wish for these days of peaceful anonymity. But until that opportunity presents itself, I need to banish any insecure feelings of failure simply because I’m content in my life of satisfying, extreme competence.