Regressing toward a higher mean, or, there’s room for everyone to be great

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There's a phenomenon in statistics called regression toward the mean. You can read a good explanation of it here, but the short version goes like this:

(1) Give people a test (say, driving a golf ball, but don't worry, this isn't going to be a sports post), then plot the results. You'll notice that there are some outliers (those with really long drives and those with really short drives), but most of them will cluster around a mean, or average.

(2) Add a new variable to all of them that you'd expect will change their drive. An example might be a golf lesson (which you'd expect to increase the drive distance) or wrist weights (which you'd expect would decrease the drive distance).

(3) Test them again, and plot the results. You'll find that there are still outliers and a cluster around a mean. The mean may be different, but there's still a mean and there are still roughly the same number of people clustered around it.

Got it?

OK, cool. Now, let's look at life.

Can we all agree there are outliers? We might have different measures and have different tastes, but I'm going to suggest as success measures not having trouble paying your bills, generally enjoying what you do, and not worrying about what other people think.

I'm going to suggest the "positive" outliers — people who are "winning" at life, if you will — are people like Richard Branson, Joe Rogan and Kim Kardashian. They all seem to be pretty happy folks with successful business ventures (look, I'm a fan of one of the three of them and I did absolutely no research).

Then there are "negative" outliers — people who maybe aren't doing so well. People who are homeless, hungry and unhappy about it, maybe. (Yes, I realize it's a very American-centric view of things, can we move on, please?)

Then there's some line that is the average of those people.

Depending on how you measure things, now you have people clustered around that line. We're going to stick with the generally subjective items I seem to have come up with here.

There are people who have no trouble paying their bills, have a generally satisfying family life but hate their jobs. Or people who are wealthy but alone and miserable. Or people who like their jobs and like their home lives but are just scraping by, sometimes eating just rice for a couple days at the end of the month to keep the heat on.

When you add up their "scores," they wind up somewhere in the middle, give or take.

This is regression toward the mean.

Now, let's add some measure of happiness to everybody. I don't know, maybe one day each week, every person gets some sort of dopamine release that launches them into absolute bliss for 16 hours. Or maybe everybody always gets all the sleep they need every night.

There are still outliers now, but everyone's happiness went up. Most people are still clustered around a mean, just the mean is higher than it was before we added our new thing.

Still with me? Good, because this is where it gets important.

We're all making this up as we go along, trying to get a little bit better, day by day. Some of us have figured out some things. Some of us have figured out other things. Some of us haven't figured out anything.

But we can all get better. The top outliers can become better, the bottom outliers can become better, and everyone who regressed toward the mean can get better — it just gives us a higher mean. The distribution remains the same, but we're raising the mean.

Let's make up numbers. Let's say the outliers at the top are 90 and the outliers at the bottom are 10 and the mean is 50. What if we bump the top outliers to 100 and the bottom to 20 and the mean to 60? Everybody got better. What if we bump the top outliers to 200 and the bottom to 120 and the mean to 160?

Same distribution, but the mean is higher.

Here's the point: Nobody has to get worse for you to get better. There's room for everyone to improve, for everyone to rise, and it doesn't detract from your ability to also rise.

So lift people up, don't put them down. As you rise, bring people with you. It'll be easier at the top if you have people around you.

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