Achievement is Not Normal

Originally published in Flourishing January 2012.

Many personal attributes, such as height and IQ scores, are distributed “normally” throughout the population.  In most things, most people are near the middle of the range and very few are far away from the middle. The distribution is symmetric, which means—as in the case of height—that as many people are taller than average, as are shorter than average.  Almost no one exceeds the average in height or IQ by more than about 25%.  You could plot this on the “normal distribution” chart above.

Achievement is not like that. The highest achievers accomplish far more than the average person. For example, the best computer programmers are many times more productive than average programmers.  Think Bill Gates, whose programming and entrepreneurial genius has literally changed the world. 

Best-selling authors far outsell average authors.  Think J. K. Rowling, whose seven Harry Potter books have sold more than 350 million copies and enriched the lives of millions more.

Achievement doesn’t graph as “normal”.  Statistically speaking, it’s “log normal”.  Those few who achieve at the extreme do things that virtually no one else does. Altogether, those things—whatever they are in particular cases—don’t just add up to higher achievement, they multiply.  That’s a good thing to know.

If you’re still wondering why 20% of the population earns 60% of the income and the top 1% earns 20% of the income, that’s the reason.  They’re not “normal”.  They create extreme value.

That’s a good thing; and a good thing to know, too.  mh