Of Attitude And Aptitude, By Ifeanyi Uddin

Ifeanyi Uddin

I have heard expressed a preference for “attitude” over “aptitude”; and I have come to realise that this preference is contingent on a variety of circumstances. Attitude, for instance would, conceived in the abstract, i.e. outside of any particular set of experiences, range from the extremely unaccommodating individual (a psychopath, for instance) to the one who bends over backwards to please (the country club manager, for example). And even within specific circumstances, what counts as desirable attitude would vary. A seminary where votaries have taken the oath of silence would obviously prize certain dispositions much differently than a nightclub would.

There is scant argument over basic definitions. Attitude is essentially a question of individual dispositions. How one feels or thinks about anything. Reaction to external stimuli, if you will. Aptitude, on the other hand, is slightly more involved. It is a capacity question – to learn and to do. Some dictionaries even go as far as to define it as “natural ability”.

If the choice ever came to either of these, I’d long persuaded myself that I would always plump for aptitude. But I have had senior colleagues argue that a mediocre staff with the “right attitude” is preferable to a highly competent one with the “wrong attitude”. I still struggle to come to terms with this phrasing of the matter. However, the argument is simply that whereas the former is “trainable”, the latter might be too set in his/her ways. A corollary to this is that “wrong attitudes” could be disruptive to the cohesion of work teams. So, out with the brilliant, but badly behaved team member; and in with the well behaved, but middling one.

My counter argument is simply that the “good” ought to cede ground to the “better”, and that it is just as inappropriate for the latter to hog space in the presence of a clear “best”. In our current environment, I believe this dynamic is ever more desirable. As a people, we have become inured to “second bests”. If we mean seriously to become a normal place I believe it is self-evident that we would need to overthrow our current obsession with mediocrity.

On the other hand, much of the changes that the world is a beneficiary to today are the results of folks challenging settled opinion. Living, and thinking, as it were, at the bleeding edge of all that is proper. Today, two things (one, a process, and the other, a development) are exacerbating the pace of change, and increasing the premium on aptitude: globalisation and the world wide web. Both these developments have speeded up the pace of change, the rate of dispersion of new thoughts and practices, and the rate of technological obsolescence.

Ought we then to abandon our preference for box dwellers, and begin investing, instead, in those people who live outside the box? A recent conversation altered my take on the basic premises of this conversation. My interlocutor then reminds me that even in those places where technology and its offspring have been husbanded relatively better than we have done, the consensus is in favour of “attitude”.

Only then did it strike me that this “tension” turns on a definition. No! It turns on the dominant ethos within which this conversation takes place. If an American argues in favour of “attitude” over “aptitude” for instance, he means something different from the Japanese, and both indicate an experience that the German might not fully share. Still, as the US becomes the global exemplar, we realise that other countries are beginning to approximate the attitudes that underpin Anglo-Saxon capitalism’s successes.

From this acknowledgement, it is but a short walk to the next question: what is the ethical context of our domestic preference for “attitude” over “aptitude”? Put differently, and what is basically the same question, what is our preferred attitude? Essentially, it is this: an unquestioning deference of the young to the old. And within the work place, of the junior to the senior staff. Indeed the felicity with which our traditional gerontocracy inverts in the work place is instructive. More “soviet” than “democratic”, the attitudes that matter to us, the ones before whose altar we sacrifice our most gifted compatriots are unlikely to bear us far, nor in the right direction!

Mr. Uddin, a monetary theorist, and economic historian, writes a weekly Monday column for Premium Times. He is also a member of the editorial board this paper.

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