Being 11th is Good Enough

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The story of not being enough runs through our society, from individuals up through the organisations we create then back down onto people again in a perpetually reinforcing circle.

The organisation I am embedded in right now is the University of Edinburgh. This university came 11th in the Times Higher Learning World University Rankings 2012-2013 for Arts and Humanities, which is something to be immensely proud of, something to celebrate.  But the buzz of winning soon fades even for organisations.  Now the university is starting to crave another hit, something bigger and better.

This morning one of the higher-ups came to give us a pep talk. Of course she referred to our achievement of ranking #11, but she also suggested we aim our efforts higher. No one challenged her assessment.  If you’re number 11, the obvious next chapter is to compete your way into the top 10.  No one stops to ponder whether being 11th out of 100s of institutions across the whole wide world might just be good enough.

I did my my PhD on the other side of the Atlantic at a university equally obsessed with rankings, in its case the Macleans University rankings for Canada.  Carleton University is not even in the top 200 in the world.  If it suddenly found itself 11th, its higher-ups would think they’d hit the jackpot.  So why does Edinburgh feel that 11th is not enough?  Because it’s caught in the same story each of us is caught in, the story of scarcity.

In a university, people are the “natural resources”, so when a university wants to ramp up production, its staff are the ones that get mined.  We are the ones that ultimately are not enough, not doing enough, not producing enough, not teaching well enough.

But the rank-climbing plotline is not the only possible story to tell.  The university could aim to maintain its position while making improvements elsewhere such as in job satisfaction, or staff work—life balance, or reducing its carbon footprint, or…you get the picture.

I left the pep talk feeling more drained and exhausted than I had on arriving.  But  my experience this morning was not unique in any way.  In fact, I want to suggest exactly the opposite.  The story of scarcity dominates every sector from the knowledge economy to the service economy to the natural resource economy.  To tell a story of being enough in the face of this global myth of scarcity is to engage in some seriously radical storytelling.

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