Paddling Happily to Mediocrity

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Steve Duin’s column about Greg Oden in The Oregonian last week is going to make a lot of Oregonians mad – and not just Greg Oden fans.

Oden, you may recall, is the center who was acquired as a first-round draft pick with much fanfare (and a great many dollars) by the Portland Trail Blazers back in 2007. To put it kindly, he has not lived up to his advance notices.

Addressing his remarks to Oden, Duin writes: “You have missed 164 games - two FULL seasons - nursing those bum knees. Not only have those injuries stunted your development, but the Sam Bowie impression is so convincing that even when you do come back, coaches and fans will wince each time you turn into the lane.”

Then Duin’s column expands from an indictment of Oden into an indictment of Oregon.

Again addressing Oden, he reassures him, “In this idyllic backwater of complacent mediocrity, you fit right in.”

“Oregon is the last great sanctuary for underachievers,” Duin continues, twisting the knife in the wound. “When you want to record 1,800 billable hours at your law firm each year instead of 2,000, you move to Oregon. When you’d rather sell your small start-up for $400,000 than commit to the work that might make it worth $400 million, you end up in Oregon. …

“Oregon is an early retirement home for those who’d rather kayak in a small pond than risk drowning in a large one.”

Ouch.

It’s a painful indictment – but I believe it’s a fair one.

With a few notable exceptions (think “Ducks and Beavers football”) Oregon isn’t the kind of place that prizes achievement or excellence. The prevailing culture is easy-does-it, don’t-rock-the-boat, good-enough-is-good-enough. Sometimes even less than good enough is considered good enough.

We pay lip service to the idea of attracting industry and encouraging entrepreneurs, but our culture disdains people who are too industrious and entrepreneurial. Anybody who really hustles, who seems too ambitious, too assertive, too pushy, risks becoming a pariah.

That’s not the Oregon way, we sneer. It’s more like the California way, or (horrors!) the New York way.

Having spent the first 28 years of my life on the East Coast and lived in California before moving to Oregon 25 years ago, I can attest that these cultural differences are not imaginary, nor are they empty stereotypes. They’re real.

And I often wonder if Oregon’s lackadaisical, mellowed-out, anti-achievement attitude isn’t a big reason why the state chronically lags in the economic race – maybe even a bigger reason than tax rates or regulations or land use laws or any of the other usual suspects.

I don’t know how we got that attitude, but we’d better find a way to change it. Or else be content to keep paddling around in that same stagnant and shrinking little pond.


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