What’s wrong with being in the middle of the Bell (Normal) Curve?

It’s that time of year when we are encouraged to plan our year ahead and to become exceptional. Around us everything has become hyper-aspirational, with advertising selling us one-of-a-kind dream holidays, whilst also encouraging us to go extreme and add in another medium sized pizza for £5. Fitness and health-food adverts are everywhere with pictures of extraordinary people in them. None of us are being urged to be normal, why would we want to be normal?

Whenever I use the word normal I imagine a normal curve. We are surrounded by normal curves, you may know it as the bell curve, they are the same thing. These are the graphs that start at low, progress a little before rising sharply to a plateau, they then drop just as sharply before again levelling out at the same low level at the other side – making the outline of a bell.

You may not realise it, but these curves are found in many, many places. Many human dimensions follow a normal distribution – height, ring finger length, shoe size.

In reality most of these examples are not truly normal; it would be more accurate to describe them as approximately normal. This means that they are close enough to normal for us to use the normal distribution mathematical model to discern meaning.

What meaning can we discern from a curve? What wisdom can a simple line give us? There are many, but I want to return to the example that we started with and that pressure to step out from the mediocre – to differentiate ourselves from the normal.

If the normal is a bell curve, and the chances are it is, differentiating ourselves means moving to the edges of that curve. Most of the time exhorted to move to the right of the chart, to be exceptionally better than the pack.

I feel like we need an example. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that the amount of reading that people do is approximately a bell curve. A few people read a lot, but not many, most people read a reasonable amount, and then a few other people read very little. The chances are, you are in the middle of this curve, I can say that with confidence because most people are somewhere in the middle, that’s how a normal curve works. Mathematically 68% of people are in the middle bit marked A below and 95% of people are in A+B:

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The leaves 5% of people in those tail bits at either end. If you want to be at the top of the curve, to the right, you need to recognise that the top only represents 2.5%. But the curve tells us more than that, it tells us that to move out of A we need to be twice as different as those within the middle of A, if you want to move out of B then you need to be at least three times different.

(Sorry for the terribly imprecise definition above, if you want to get more precise then please feel free to investigate the 68–95–99.7 rule)

These numbers show us just how hard it is to be truly exceptional, step back from the edge just a small amount and your are back in the pack with the other 84% of people. So you do need to be confident that driving to be truly exceptional is worth it, which it probably is in a few areas of life. For most things, though, I’m sure that it’s a much better for us to aim for the centre of the curve, to be normal.

We’ve already seen that being truly exceptional in one particular area is very difficult to achieve, it requires a huge amount of effort, and all of that effort drives to specialisation. Let’s return to our reading example, if you are going to be an exceptional reader then you are going to dedicate all of your time and energy to reading which means that you will have limited energy available for other pursuits. Your dedication to reading will mean that you unlikely to be a exceptional painter or even a writer. You may even struggle to be a normal painter or writer. It’s a trivial example, but I think that many of us would be far happier and more fulfilled in our lives if we weren’t seeking to be extraordinary and were more focused on being normal across a wide spectrum of areas.

While I was preparing this post I came across an article by Venkatesh Rao who argues, in a far more extensive way than I have, for something very similar:

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