There is always room for mediocrity

To win is unusual. Well, if you think about it, only one individual or one group of individuals can win any competition. Unless there are only two competitors, losers will outnumber winners and often by a considerable margin, yet we are obsessed by the need to be the best and also by doing, having and supporting the best. I remember the disappointment of watching my team losing at the end of last season (although being older and more experienced, the feeling is muted compared to what I endured in childhood), but time and life move on: the new season has started and with it new feelings of anticipation and excitement. So, what was all the fuss 

I am sure there are teams of historians, sociologists and psychologists who could wax lyrical about why we, as individuals and as a society, are driven by winning. Although interested in the causes, I am more concerned with the consequences: the concomitant fear of failure and the disparagement of anything not considered a winning attribute. And the result? An obsession with those considered the elite.

One consistent area of contention with regard to the development of skills and elite skills is education. Views on this topic are annually aired at this time of year, when exam results are published and decisions about courses to undertake are made. Again, I will avoid becoming embroiled in such a controversial topic. However, I came across a humorous and thought-provoking TED Talk (, which highlights the need for education systems to consider everyone as individuals with different skills and talents that develop at different rates. I particularly enjoyed the statement that ‘a three year old is not half a six year old’. However, the key truth is that everyone has a talent and everyone develops differently and by different means. The corollary of an obsession with elitism is the diminution of anything deemed average. If winning is unusual, then being average, by definition, is normal. Without people who are content to be good at being normal or average, society and business could not function.

Herein lies an irony. While people may be considered average by a particular metric or group of metrics, everybody has a unique set of talents and inherent skills. By combining these talents and skills in a particular way or context, individuals and teams can become winners. Scott Adams, the originator of the Dilbert comic strips, puts his success down to the combination of more than one of his mediocre skills: art, business and writing. This was reinforced when I attended a talk by an artist (, who combines his artistic talents with his interest in exploration. Recently, this resulted in his decsision to paint underwater. At first thought this sounds like a ridiculous proposition, but when it is derived from combining two of his passions and results in something that carries more value because it is unique, both in its final form and in how it was produced, it makes sense.

Non-destructive testing, as a profession, probably relies on a greater diversity of talents than other engineering disciplines, because of the requirement to bridge new developments in techniques and equipment and their practical application in a variety of environments. This was brought home clearly to me during the Health and Safety Executive-funded ‘Programme for the assessment of NDT in industry’ (PANI 3) project. Operators who scored high on the original thinking measure did not do well on the ultrasonic task. For reliable application of an inspection, it is necessary to have the attributes that support the consistent adherence to the procedure for an extended period of time, attributes that are not necessarily given due 

The diverse talents required for NDT and the varied rate of developing them is reflected in the range of apprenticeship/educational schemes: NDT Operator; NDT Engineering Technician; NDT Engineer; and MSc Advanced Industrial Practice (Non-Destructive Testing, Condition Monitoring and Structural Health Monitoring). Then, of course, there are those who have combined the application of NDT with other talents, including diving for subsea work and climbing for rope access. It is important that we acknowledge the valuable contribution of everyone involved in the NDT profession and help them to realise their own individual talents.

It is unclear whether combining NDT with watching sport on TV will lead to success, but I am working on it.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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