Defending Mediocrity

Jeremy French, Owner of Mandala Studio

Jeremy French, Owner of Mandala Studio

The following is an essay written by Jeremy French in January of 2012. It was in response to the state of the union of the concrete industry, and it is even more relevant 2 years later. I highly urge you to read this in its entirety, and take to heart the messages. 

- Defending Mediocrity -


Over the past few months I have been shocked on a few occasions about how quickly mediocrity is defended in our community. When discussing the values around what we make, whether related to what the cost should be or how intellectual property is valued or how someone's designs and visions are perceived and valued. It doesn't take long before the trumpet of 'it's not a big deal' starts sounding off.

"Value has value only if its value is valued."- Bryan Dyson, former CEO of Coke. 

It doesn't bother me that there are different opinions, or different markets, or different approaches. It does bother me when we defend our right to devalue what we do, the things we make, the ideas we have. Why do we need to defend mediocrity? So everyone can feel comfortable, so you can feel like everyone should be able to do this, because we really don't value what we do, WTF?

Back when this industry was in it's early days, information was painfully difficult to come by. Information was naturally valued because of the amount of effort that it took to get it. If you wanted to figure out how to do something, you had to go to the local hardware store, buy $500 worth of crap that you would never use again, spend days trying to make that $500 worth of crap do what you had spent countless nights obsessing about, fail miserably for weeks, spend money you didn't have, fail some more, and then finally hit a stroke of luck thousands of dollars and weeks into your endeavor just so could successfully glue a little BS trinket into someones vanity. Now you can hop on a forum and you will have 20 people fight for the right to tell you how they had figured out how to make something work. You spent 5$ on some Starbucks and some tissues and you have your answer. It is no wonder that so many don't see REAL value in that information.

Am I saying that this format of exchanging information is bad? Yes and no. If the information isn't valued, if the elders of this medium aren't given respect on simple principle, if people start to feel like they should magically be a professional overnight, if people think this should be given them as a matter of birth rite, etc etc, then yes this format is going to die, but not before it wrecks the value of this medium.

On the other hand, if this becomes a tool to genuinely elevate the medium, as well as the business of the medium, then it has potential to create something real for us to hang our hats on. In order for this to happen, there has to be a principle by which we all stand, it must be paramount to all other opinions, and it must be defended above all else. That principle is about protecting and elevating value for the medium. It means that we don't defend the right to be mediocre, or morally ambiguous, or the right to short sell ourselves for a quick dollar at the expense of the long term viability of our chosen profession. It means that the next time someone says "I can only charge 24$ per foot because I live in the arctic circle, and I have only made a few tiles in my igloo." we don't say, "Yeah buddy, you are right, if that is all you can get then that must be what it is worth." We say instead, "here are some options you have to charge a fair value for your efforts", or "get a job shoveling snow, and stop making it more difficult for those who have paid their dues."


In regards to the Value (cost) of what we do.

What you charge in the Arctic Circle has an impact on what I can charge in Georgia. You can say it isn't so, go ahead and defend your right to mediocrity, or you can see that in the age of the internet all you have to do to see what the price is in the Arctic Circle is a simple Google search. The next thing you know, a seed is planted for a potential client, and then my job of selling them on the idea of the real value of what we make has been made exponentially more difficult. Simple cues play a tremendous role in perceived value, and once those simple ideas are planted, then it is very difficult to uproot that idea.

The next time we are discussing this, perhaps we can collectively agree that what we all want is to be able to charge more for what we do. Instead of fighting for the right to charge $50 per foot, maybe there can be a more thoughtful discussion on methods for being able to charge $150 per foot. Not everyone can come out of the gates making work of the quality that deserves that price, but it can certainly be a goal to get there, instead of having the right to stay mediocre.

Am I saying that everyone should charge $150 per foot, not necessarily. I charge as little as $35 per foot in certain situations (a price that means something eventually retails at $135 per foot). The idea is that we understand how our decisions play a role in the perceived value of the product as a whole. It is important that we value our time, our skills, our intellectual property, our craft. The final dollar amount will be different for everyone, but the value should be equally sacred no matter where you are.


In regards to the value of Intellectual Property.

Understanding is not free. Intellectual property (IP) is what drives this thing forward. How someone creates a mold, or casts a piece, or makes a color is something that cost them time and money to figure out. You want to elevate the industry? You don't elevate the industry by asking someone to give you that information for free. You don't elevate by saying the only value of your IP is in you giving it to me for free so my life is easier. If you want to elevate, then you pay the price, you offer money or respect or whateverthefuck gives value to IP. If you give the people who are coming up with solutions the tools they need (money) for their efforts, then they will be supported in coming up with more solutions making your life and craft even better.

Intellectual Property is the most valuable thing in the new world economy. It is what our entire economy will be built on in the future. Don't undervalue this most precious resource.


In regards to Design.

A finished concept is a reflection of a process. What makes a beautiful thing beautiful is the story behind it. If the process is not there, then the story is not there, then the piece is empty. That is a simple version of why you don't go out of your way to publicly copy someone else's creation, it is not yours and it is empty. I feel like it is a disregard for the true beauty of a piece to try and recreate it. It is a disrespectful thing because it disregards the complexity of the process of creation. It is Milli Vanilli. We need less Milli Vanilli and more Miles Davis.

When Picasso says that good artists copy, but great artists steal, he was referring to the spirit of a piece. Great artists take the process that drove a concept and take it to it's next level in the progression. The story then becomes more complete, and the craft is elevated. The finished piece will resemble the original in little or no ways to outward appearance, but they will be tied in their spirit.

The great Jazz of the 50's and 60's had a creative movement that is rarely rivaled. People took a movement or a phrase and took it to the next level. Sometimes phrases from one guys work were used, but more often than not it was done in a way that said "I heard you man, that was worth repeating so that I could follow it with this thought." They were talking to each other, they were telling a story, and they were respecting each other. If someone lazily repeated something because they weren't talented enough to tell their own story, or they we just too lazy, they weren't given any respect.

Come up with your own stuff people! Don't go defending the right to be lazy or unoriginal. Fight to push the creativity along, it is what makes our medium special. If you are not any good at design, that is not a problem but a solution in disguise. Go find someone that is good with design, get involved with them, explain your medium, develop a relationship because that what good businesses are built on. I am not saying that being original is easy, in fact sometimes it is painfully difficult. Something being difficult is not an excuse to just not do it. Don't defend being mediocre in the creative process just because it is hard. Defend creativity, it is sacred. Defend what is good with what we do, stop making excuses for what is not good and what is lazy and near sighted.

We set the tone for how this thing moves forward. If we defend and nurture mediocrity, then we sow mediocrity. If we say that we want to see what is elevated, what is truly creative and valuable, then that is what will come of this community. Stop protecting people from hurt feelings and silly fears. Push the new guys to get better at what they do, to tell their own story, to bring something real to the party instead of something they are regurgitating from a discussion that is 2 years old for which they have no real experience. Stop coddling each other and start pushing for something that is good and real. If we say, "yeah we want to see your pictures of how you hacked someone else's gig", then that is where we set the bar. Why set the bar at the level of mediocrity and stand for what are freshman chops? Why stand for crap? Why not say "we want to see you do something special, or just keep it to yourself".

If you are new, take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. Develop your own voice before you start talking all the time. Miles Davis said to Coltrane "Man, you have to cut your solo off". Coltrane said "I just don't know how to end the phrase". Miles told him "You take the F*cking horn out of your mouth." Until you have something good to bring to the party, take the horn out of your mouth. Am I saying this because I don't care, or I don't think you are valuable? Not really. I am saying if you are so busy talking, then you may miss the quiet moment of inspiration that puts you on the path of something brilliant.

This can be amazing guys and gals. It can also be a circle jerk. What's it going to be?

Where are we setting the bar?

Can we get over this need to make everyone feel special and get on with protecting the interests of those who are putting their soul on the line? Can we push the crap to the side and put on the pedestal real creativity? Can we stop defending mediocrity and push ourselves to something better?

- Jeremy French