On Average, People Are Average

27th March 2017

Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.’

With this fictional sign-off, the long-running radio show ‘The Prairie Home Companion’, set in the American mid-west, inspired what psychologists call the ‘Lake Wobegon Effect’. That is, the rather annoying human habit of over-estimating one’s own abilities. It is, I have come to believe, a phenomenon that challenges many professional choices.

Think about it. What if we believe ourselves to be outstanding leaders, but in truth, are not? What if we expect cutting-edge insight specialists will work on our brief, but in truth, do not? What if we believe we have deeply superior marketing judgment, but in truth, have not?

Let me share a universal law that I have developed for my own personal use, as a way to keep me focused, honest and humble: on average, people are average. And, because we’re human, it applies to everyone.

Take my world, that of professional marketing services, for example. If as a client you don’t make a special effort to land the best individual for your brief, you’re on course to get an average result. As an agency, if you don’t make a special effort to collaborate with or hire the best individual to support a brief, you’re on course to deliver an average result.

Because, on average, people are average.

I do not take this as either a surprising or a disappointing discovery that should clip my wings. Rather, it is a mathematical certainty to be managed.

Organisations have a myriad ways to help overcome our Lake Wobegon blind spots. They invite us to 360 reviews, that we may hear the views of others – good and bad. They grade us on a curve that we may know our percentile scores and understand how we stack up against our peers. It can seem as if they are waging war against any delusions of grandeur.

And yet, if indeed ‘on average, people are average’, the most obvious candidate to take this law seriously is the individual. Any individual. Me. You.

The more my work leverages the skills and talents I am especially (and relatively) strong in, and in which I have delivered results, the more likely I am to land on the right side of that normal distribution curve. Marketing is the act of best foot forward, and so is one’s career planning. Fail to operate in the sweet spot of passion and excellence, and we drift towards averageness. The same, naturally, is true for those people we hire.

My ‘Law of Averageness’ has informed many of my professional career decisions and choices. It has helped me better understand where I can add value, where I can find value, and when I should shut up.

And it has led me to venerate specialists in any realm of life. Because generalists can get ahead of the curve only with great difficulty. Indeed, ‘full service’ anything is running up against the odds, appealing more to ease than to excellence.

Of course, one could imagine a team of specialists, all specialising and collaborating excellently. I have known such organisations. They are not easy to find, nor easy to maintain. Because Lake Wobegon is a community starved of reality. Because excellence is found in exceptionally focused people, and finding them is hungry work. Because on average, people are average.

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