When I was applying for scholarships for college, my father said something that I thought was nonsensical at the time. I was bemoaning the acceptance rate statistics, and Dad said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many scholarships are awarded or how many people apply, you only need one scholarship.” Being a mathematically talented teenager, I “knew” this kind of advice was utter nonsense. Of course it mattered! If the acceptance rate was only 5%, then naturally I only had a 5% chance of getting the scholarship, and if the supply was limited, then the more people that applied, the worse my chances. Right?
With time, I’ve come to realize the wisdom in what Dad said, and even from a mathematical standpoint, that he was actually correct. It is a subtle but critically important distinction that we all would do well to internalize. In statistical language, it means not confusing summary statistics with point observations or samples. In layman’s terms it means: you are not an average anything (at least, not necessarily).
It is all too common to hear advice like “you should work out 3 times per week for 30 minutes,” or “the average person needs 8 hours of sleep,” or “you should eat like a caveman.” The problem with these broad prescriptions is that they are not based on your particular needs, and they may or may not actually apply to you. You always need to examine where these recommendations come from, what assumptions they make, and whether they will likely be beneficial for you personally. Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that as long as they are based on solid science across a large sample, they actually will apply to you. But you should be prepared to “reject the null hypothesis,” or to say it more concretely: “your mileage may vary.”
In other words, don’t assume that what works for the average person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point. There is a very good chance it will work for you – after all, there is definitely something to be said for the “wisdom of the crowds.” On the other hand, you may have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right. More importantly, actively look out for situations where you are being treated or acting like everyone else when you shouldn’t be. Yes, “most” people can tolerate gluten, but that doesn’t mean you can. “Most” people happily guzzle soda made with GMO-based corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean you should. “Most” people aspire to get a decent job working for a company, buy a house, get married, and have kids, but you should carefully consider whether that’s the best path for you. “Most” people blindly follow in the footsteps of their parents when it comes to religion, but why would you make such an important decision by accepting the default?
If you only do what the average person does, you will probably only have an average life (or worse). To be happy and healthy, you need to be productive and strive towards fulfilling your best true self. That involves finding your strengths (i.e., those aspects of your self where you don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve, i.e., you are not average), and doubling-down on them – not just settling for what is “normal” or “expected.” Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average – it’s up to you to discover how to make it great and to march resolutely down your own path.
In the end, I worked hard on my applications, and I did get that one acceptance to a very selective college and that one scholarship I needed, and the experiences I had because of those “lucky breaks” have had a positive lasting impression on who I am and how I approach life. But to think of them as lucky breaks isn’t right. It’s clear now that I was not an average applicant. Rather, I was an outstanding one – I just didn’t realize it. But on some level, Dad did.
P.S. Many of the concepts here are based on a basic understanding of statistics, a subject I and others have suggested should replace Calculus in high school curricula. If you want to learn more about statistics in a fun way, I heartily recommend The Cartoon Guide to Statistics.