Jantelagen 2: The Case For Mediocrity

I conceived the handling of this topic in two parts.  It is worthwhile to read Part 1 before reading the present blogpost.  This is not a topic to be taken lightly.  I wrote the first part from a very personal point of view because any philosophy can only be experienced through our own lives.  Telling our own stories without fear of being judged (although we are more likely to be judged) is more likely to have resonance.  The previous blogpost was meant to show the challenges that await anyone who wants to achieve anything beyond his or her immediate horizon.  The dreamers are derided for being fools who think the impossible.  They are derided until they prove to be visionaries. To dream requires courage because those who will want to help a dreamer on his/her quixotic quest are few.  To achieve any dream, one needs help and encouragement because it is always easier for those around us to discourage us into aiming a little lower, dreaming a little smaller, aim for what is visible and proven, such that they may feel ok with their own lot.  Watching someone else achieve makes us wonder if we could.  It inspires those who dare and is a slap in the face to those who would not want to try.

Among singers who have had to overcome Jantelagen (the Law of Jante), Birgit Nilsson comes to mind.  Her biography is very discriptive of those in her town who would say: “who does she think she is to aspire to the Opera School in Stockholm?” Well, she went way beyond that and became arguably the greatest dramatic soprano in the 20th century and perhaps beyond.  The number of Scandinavians who have achieved greatness in the world is extraordinary.  In the world of Opera, they are legendary.  Among the Swedes, there is an unbroken line of world-class singers that stretch back since before the second world war and further back when we think of Jenny Lind.  Yet the social norm is to not dare!  In truth, this can be said of pretty much every country.  Those who dare to go beyond normal expectations are always derided.  But there are always a few who defy the low expectations.

On the other hand, when I have visited the poorer countries of the world, I rarely hear of dreamers being derided.  It is often the reverse.  In places where resources are few, those that can are encouraged to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  It is not unusual for people to migrate to more prosperous lands to seek opportunity and then send money and goods back to their country of origin.  As the world’s powers are now innondated with asylum seekers and immigrants, racist and nationalist views become more popular.  This is an expected consequence!  A certain level of comfort is in danger of being lost with mass migration.  Scandinavian countries are the last to have their social comfort threatened.  Are those countries ready to produce on a greater scale? No reason they should not!  But there may be a tremendous adjustment to be made.

Whether a Scandinavian achieves or not, there is a social net that will prevent abject poverty.  Why would the average person want to achieve beyond what they need to benefit from that social net?  I have heard the term Jantelagen used often as a reason for why one does not go beyond his/her comfort zone.  Someone with my philosophy of pushing beyond boundaries is an anti-thesis to that.  I imagined as a teacher that those that chose classical singing as a path are already unusual types who would not need much pushing to work hard.  Yet we live in a world of immediate expectations and through Pop-Opera artists and contests like Eurovision, superficiality is often not distinguished from true competence.  Although I have experienced this lackluster attitude in many different countries, the combination of social comfort, the laziness instilled by pop culture, and this ideology of Jantelagen  in Scandinavia create the perfect storm for underachievement.  Finland has decided to halt its program of providing every citizen with a basic living income. It had proven very costly and created an atmosphere of non-productivity.  Finland is also revolutionizing its educational system, which hopefully will have a positive effect on the rest of the region.

Opera at its best is a discipline of Olympic-level difficulty.  To become truly competent one is challenged physically, mentally and spiritually.  Yet while Olympic athletes have a platform every four years where they are celebrated and pitted against their colleagues worldwide and dared to achieve beyond themselves, Opera (which used to be have that spirit of excellence as a given) is not relegated to a platform celebrated by the entire world.  Singers with weak voices and armed with a microphone will produce an inferior similitude on Eurovision, which gets a great deal more attention.  Eurovision is enjoyed even by classical singers for its sports-like format.  The classical arts are not celebrated anymore for what they can contribute.  At best, they inspire us to greater heights of physical coordination and strength, to greater mental development and to deeper spiritual questioning.  In short they inspire.  They also require greater effort, which unfortunately is not compatible with a world bent on minimal effort and the excuse of Jantelagen for not daring to achieve.

There was a time when it was accepted that greater effort yields greater achievement.  Now the world is run by realists who proclaim that it does our children a disservice to tell them they can achieve anything they set their minds to.  It is easier today to say: “You are not all that!  You are not special!  You’re just a normal kid who can only achieve normal things. Don’t fool yourself in thinking you can ever do anything special.”

I would have never gotten this far if not for my crazy teachers who told me that I could go further, that I can achieve more with greater effort.  Not getting to the stage of the Metropilitan Opera has not discouraged me in the least.  Quite the contrary!  I look at what I have achieved and I tell myself:  “Just one more step!  And another, and another…ad infinitum!” Who knows where I might end up?

My average college-age student sees me as a relic from another time, who dreams big with no sense of reality!  Maybe it was always like that!  Maybe it was always only a few that took the Quixotic path because they were instilled early on with a sense of possibility.  

In one of my favorite movies, Le maître de musique, the protagonist, Joachim Dallayrac, played by celebrated opera singer, José van Dam, took on two students: one rich and talented soprano and one poor thief of a tenor with a raw voice.  He was thought to be insane for taking on only two students. But he saw something in them both.  A passion and dedication in one who was rich enough not to need it, and a resillience and daring in a poor young man who would not be denied.  Alas this movie was made when I was a young singer, at the same time that movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid were worlwide successes–a time when the impossible was considered merely a barrier to overcome and not the implaccable pronouncement of fate that condemns the realist to stagnation.

Regardless of what I say, the inspired will be further inspired and the fatalist will have already given up.  The challenges of our times are great, but I would not compare my lot with those who lived the great depression or faced Nazi Germany on the battlefield.  Jantelagen is the excuse of the privileged and the reason of the lazy.  Achievement is not measured by how high you climb, but by what distance you have covered.  The fact that many have a headstart on us is no reason for us not to take the road.  The race is not against others, but with ourselves.

I write, and speak, and teach in the hope that I might provide the necessary push for someone who may be at a tipping point, the flicker that might ignite the ready wick, the thumb that may tip the scale, in the direction of hope, of possibility of inspiration, just as it was given me.  For those who would take it in derision…I don’t have time for you!

© May 19, 2018

One thought on “Jantelagen 2: The Case For Mediocrity

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  1. I thought of this as I was conquering my first, ever, quasi strung-together double unders in the gym this morning. When we are truly at peak achievement level, truly pushing the growth envelope, there is no room for “the other.” You’ve been trying to teach me that for a long time…Wisdom unfolds like a flower with its own timing but if we keep watch I do believe Life somehow always stretched toward the Light if we keep the Faith…which of course you’ve ALSO been trying to teach me…and the unfurling continues…!


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