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On being exceptional

I recently read the article ‘In Defense of Being Average‘ by Mark Manson. It makes a strong case on why it isn’t so bad when you’re not a superhero, but that being average is A-OK.

Mark Manson builds his case, using basic statistical principles. He mentions that skills are most likely distributed amongst a bell curve:

bell curve template 1024x721 In Defense of Being Average

The concept of this is easy to grasp: by definition the vast majority will fall in the average category, while there are some positive and negative outliers as well. is concept is easy to grasp. But on TV, in the news and social media we only see the outliers, which gives us the feeling that the goal post has been moved.

So is it true then that statistically speaking there is a good chance you will feel like you are underperforming? And should this then mean that we should surrender and acknowledge that our existence will most likely not be exceptional?

This is where I have to disagree. Whilst it is true that for one Bell curve you are very likely to end somewhere in the middle, there are many thousands of different skills: IQ, EQ, playing miniature golf, tending children, building houses, being focused for an extremely long time, doing routing tasks or being good at learning new things, smiling, making people smile, …

This means that for each of these skills, there’s an entirely new Bell curve. Statistically speaking, if skills are equally distributed, out of every 100 skills you will be in the “low performing group” 20% of the time, the “average performing group” 60% of the time and the “high performing group” 20% of the time. It also means that out of every 100 skills you could think of, you should be in the top 1% for 1 of these skills.

This actually leads me to quite a different conclusion than mentioned in the article. Mark Manson (and many others such as Alain de Botton) are making the case that being average (read: non-noteworthy) is OK. To me this seems reactionary, like a coping mechanism for the inflated inputs we get from the outside world. And whilst a coping mechanism might soothe your pain, you’re probably much better off finding those items for which you are in the top and try to build important parts of your life around those.

So I would like to make the case for being exceptional in some things and using that to your advantage, rather than being average all-things considered.