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You Are NOT Above Average
🤔 But neither am I... 🤔
“The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.” -Leonard Cohen
Does being average bother you?
I won’t blame you if it does.
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I’ve made a number of references to how people are predisposed to see themselves as above-average and overrate their abilities when statistically we are most likely to be average.
But I’m sure some of you are wondering, “Josh, do you really believe that you’re average?”
And if I am not being honest, my answer would be “probably not.”
Major gaps exist between our desires and what we actually put into practice, and I’d only reinforce the biases I want us to understand if I underestimated how much I want to be “special.” But I suspect I’m not alone.
To the extent that I can, I view the knowledge that I am average as a little voice sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “Remember, statistically, you are most likely to be average,” a data-based version of memento mori. But it wouldn’t be the first still, small voice offering a contrary opinion that I ignored.
Parashat Korah is a perfect opportunity to focus on why we want so badly to be above average. Korah’s complaints seem so reasonable, at first glance, and our commentaries go out of their way to explain why these seemingly reasonable complaints are the essence of evil.
Maybe Korah took too many trips to Lake Wobegon?
Lake Wobegon Effect
Truthfully, I’ve never read Garrison Keilor. I never had any particular reason for this, although recent sexual harassment allegations against Keilor provide plenty of justification for why I won’t be starting. But we can’t learn about why people often rate themselves as above-average, leading to terms such as the “better-than-average-effect” or “illusory superiority,” unless we acknowledge that this phenomenon is often colloquially identified as the “Lake Wobegon Effect.”
Keilor describes Lake Wobgeon as a town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” And while Keillor’s stories far predate this week’s big idea, ultimately his quip about Lake Wobegon popularizes an idea also backed by science.1
Mark Alicke and Olesya Govorun argue that self-identifying as above average is a special type of social comparison.2 Typically, social comparison involves one person comparing themselves to another person, such as who is more physically attractive or who drives a nicer car. However, while it might be possible to accurately compare oneself to another person,3 it is far different to compare oneself to every other person. For example:
John thinks that he is a better driver than David; in fact, John thinks that he is an above-average driver
As a driver, David received 10 moving violations in the past year and had his license suspended. Thus, John, who has never received a moving violation, would be justified in saying that he is a better driver than David, based on available evidence
However, when John is forced to compare himself to millions of other drivers, he lacks any evidence to claim that he is above average. For example, he may not know that Insurify estimates that only 2.59% of all drivers get their license suspended.4 As a result, John has no reason to think he is an above-average driver on this piece of evidence alone
Zooming out, John’s thought process happens all the time to most of us. We know that we are not “the best,” but we hate the idea that we are “the worst,” and consider average to be pejorative. Therefore, we call ourselves “above average.” Like Korah said, “All of the people are holy!”5
However, there are a variety of negative consequences to assuming that one is above average. In some cases, the issue is our “friend” the Dunning-Kruger effect, where “unconscious incompetence” can actually lead a novice to believe they are an expert.6 Anyone who has trouble with an ineffective boss or apathetic direct report is nodding their head glumly…
But it turns out that inaccurate self-evaluation has negative impacts on our mental health, independent of how it affects other people. In a 1995 study, a group of psychologists found that people who consistently mentally self-enhance suffer from a pervasive “unrecognized and unacknowledged sense of uneasiness”:
“Ultimately, we believe, to break this sad cycle an individual must achieve more accurate self-perceptions with acknowledgment, acceptance, and humor regarding one's inevitable and human frailties. One can then still like oneself and find rewarding social validation. Driven, suppressive, narcissistic claims of self-perfection, as our findings indicate, do not dispose one toward social adaptations that warrant being called "mentally healthy."”7
When a person ignores reasonable expectations of their strengths relative to others, they create an unrealistic internal narrative that is the equivalent of constantly saying, “Can’t you all see how great I am!?!?!” This is negative self-talk of the first order, and given how hard it is to tell someone that the reason they are struggling is they are simply average, a person’s internal narrative can wreak havoc on their self-esteem.
On the one hand, we want to tell ourselves and others that they should dare greatly. But when we do not provide a sense of grounding at how hard it is to stand out, we create a situation where one is never truly happy with who they really are. And that is a tragedy.
Smarter, Faster, Better
All that said, just because there is a benefit to recognizing one’s “average-ness” does not mean people should stop trying to improve. If most people are likely to rate themselves as above average without evidence, there is still the possibility that many people will rate themselves as below average without evidence (e.g. the imposter phenomenon). While the former is problematic, the latter is tragic. And this brings us to Charles Duhigg.
Smarter, Faster, and Better is Duhigg’s most recent book. I particularly enjoy his chapter about high-performing teams, and the difference between what he calls “star cultures” and “commitment cultures,” citing a study by James Baron and Michael Hannan.8 Baron and Hannan find that “star cultures,” organizations where every person is considered the cream of the crop, succeed at record numbers, but also fail at record numbers.
In contrast, the highest-performing organizations over time are “commitment cultures,” places with a large number of talented, dedicated employees who stay in. the same place for a long period of time.9 Duhigg’s take is that commitment cultures are most successful because “a sense of trust emerged among workers, managers, and customers that enticed everyone to work harder and stick together through the setbacks that are inevitable in every industry.”10 When things get tough, commitment cultures take care of people; in star cultures, people jump ship and point fingers.
Duhigg’s analysis is the other side of the coin regarding why it is so dangerous for everyone to believe that they are “above average.” When everyone on a team thinks that they are the smartest person in the room, trust can minimize across the board, because chances are every person in that room thinks that they are the most talented person.11 Commitment cultures recognize that teams maximize the aggregate potential of the entire team. Even Jamie Tartt eventually got it…
Let’s keep this in mind when we are tempted to fetishize one kind of Jewish organization over another because my guess is those ones we undervalue are the commitment cultures that, on balance, achieve the most in the long run…12
Charles Duhigg and Jordan Harbinger
You Had Me at “Banana Ball”: The Savannah Bananas are a baseball phenomenon, bringing an interactive form of baseball reminiscent of the Harlem Globetrotters.13 Here is a photo essay about their recent tour to change baseball forever.
How Your Brain Decides Without You: Once we surrender to the idea that our brains do a great deal of work without us, we can start learning fascinating things about ourselves we never realized before. Here’s a deeper look from Nautilus on how our brains make this happen.
Why Do People Lose Their Religion?: The New York Times collected a number of stories about why people leave organized religion. Read more.
Whither Zoom Services?: Online services exploded in frequency out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but how popular are they today? Here’s new data from the Pew Research Center.
Bram P. Buunk and Nico W. Van Yperen, “Referential Comparisons, Relational Comparisons, and Exchange Orientation: Their Relation to Marital Satisfaction,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Volume 17, Number 6 (1991), 709–717.
Mark Alicke and Olesya Govorun, “The Better-Than-Average Effect,” in The Self in Social Judgment, ed. Mark Alicke et. al. (New York: Psychology Press, 2005), 85-106.
Example: If Sarah drives a brand-new Maserati, and Rachel drives a 1980 Chevy Malibu with two hubcaps missing, we could point to objective criteria that would support the statement that “Sarah drives a nicer car than Rachel.”
However, if Rachel drives a new McClaren, and Sarah drives a new Maserati, it would be harder to determine which car is “nicer.” Unless you are Russ Hanneman:
P.S.- My first car was a 1980 Chevy Malibu, although it had all of its hubcaps. I lovingly called it my “Blue Canoe.”
I tried to find other sources for this statistic. However, the point is that most drivers do not have their licenses suspended at any one time.
If you want a great D’var Torah that partially inspired this article, I’d encourage you to read this piece by Rabbi Shai Held.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 77, Number 6 (2000), 1121-1134.
C. Randall Colvin, Jack Block, and David C. Funder, “Overly Positive Self-Evaluations and Personality: Negative Implications for Mental Health,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 68, Number 6 (1995), 1161.
James N. Baron and Michael T. Hannan, “Organizational Blueprints for Success in High-Tech Start-Ups: Lessons from the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies,” California Management Review, Volume 44, Issues (Spring 2002), 8-36.
Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity (New York: Random House, 2016), 145-150.
WARNING: This is the classic kind of statement that can lead to a mental trap. You might think, “Well yes, I know that Ploni thinks that he is the smartest person in the room, even though he is not. But I actually am the smartest, most talented, etc.” Remember: Ploni is likely saying the same to himself about you…
Consider this my love letter to federations, social service agencies, and central agencies that are often caricatured as stodgy and sclerotic, when the reality is that most of these organizations existed long before most startups, and will likely exist decades after most startups close. Maybe there is a reason for that?
Founder Jesse Cole has written several books about their approach that I am excited to read, but have not read yet. I hope you’ll forgive me…