The Mechanism of Mediocrity

In 1969, a Canadian-born educator named Laurence J. Peter pricked the maidenhead of American capitalism. "In a hierarchy," he stated, "every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." He called it the Peter Principle, and it appeared in a book of the same name. The little volume, not even 180 pages long, went on to become the year's top seller, with some 200,000 copies going out bookstore doors. It's not hard to see why. Not only did the Peter Principle confirm what everyone suspected—bosses are dolts—but it explained why this had to be so. When a person excels at a job, he gets promoted. And he keeps getting promoted until he attains a job that he's not very good at. Then the promotions stop. He has found his level of incompetence. And there he stays, interminably.

The Peter Principle was a hook with many barbs. It didn't just expose the dunderhead in the corner office. It took the centerpiece of the American dream—the desire to climb the ladder of success—and revealed it to be a recipe for mass mediocrity. Enterprise was an elaborate ruse, a vector through which the incompetent made their affliction universal. But there was more. The principle had, as a New York Times reviewer put it, "cosmic implications." It wasn't long before scientists developed the "Generalized Peter Principle," which went thus: "In evolution, systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence." Everything progresses to the point at which it founders. The shape of existence is the shape of failure.

The most memorable explanations strike us as alarmingly obvious. They take commonplace observations—things we've all experienced—and tease the hidden truth out of them. Most of us go through life bumping into trees. It takes a great explainer, like Laurence J. Peter, to tell us we're in a forest.