My favourite life lesson (part 1) the bell curve

This is probably one of my all-time favourite life lessons, or whatever you want to call it. I use it often to analyse situations and it works really well for me.

It’s the bell curve, or as statisticians (a word I can never pronounce) call it, ‘the normal distribution’.

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It’s a diagram showing a ‘distribution’ and most (can never say ‘all’ from a scientific standpoint) things in life (as far as I know anyway) exhibit this pattern (yes, this itself is an example of the bell curve!), i.e. the majority exists in the big fat middle (of course the curve can flatten out, or sway to one side, or have fatter tails, but you get the point).  For example, whilst we are all of different height and weight, most of us are somewhere in the middle and only very few people are over 400 pounds or 7 foot tall.  So a 6 foot tall guy teasing a 5 foot 5 guy ‘short’ is really just 1 sample point looking at one direction without appreciating the entire population.

And from this, these are the life lessons I always remind myself:

1. Most things exist in the middle, so focus on that, don’t let the extremes (or tails) distract your attention.  Exceptions are to be managed in an exceptional manner.  It should not impact on how you should address the mass majority.

2. On the flip side, rather than searching for recipes for success, which is very difficult to find (why would anyone tell you?), focus on recipes for failure.  At least if you can try to avoid those, you have eliminated one of the tails.

3. Avoid having bipolar opinion – if you believe either it’s a 1 or 0, black or white, political party A or political party B (and therefore the decisions/positions/outcomes that they say/infer), you are probably going to be wrong most of the time.  I don’t mean you should not have a position (in fact it’s good to hold a strong moral belief), but having a position without fully understanding the potential likelihood of different outcomes is not smart either.

4. Similarly, there are very few clear causality relationships in this world (too many things and people are connected these days than ever before), i.e. don’t count on advices such as ‘if you do this, you will surely get this’.  Often times the outcome is a bell curve.

5. When you are too high on yourself, think again, you are very likely just part of the big fat middle.

6. When you are too low on yourself, think again, you are very unlikely to on that one end of the tails.  And if the tail is so fat that you happen to be in there, treat it as part of the big fat middle.  In another word, we are part of a wide spectrum and it’s up to us to define where the ‘start’ of the tails are.

7. So if no matter what decisions we take, what we do, the outcome is always a bell curve, then why bother? i.e. I am just as likely to be in the big fat middle no matter what I do?  Not quite!  You can make decisions that will alter the shape of the curve!  It will always appear as a curve but make sure it sways your way!!!

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