One of the first things a student in a statistics class may learn is how to calculate the variance of data.
Two data sets may have the same average value, but one data set may have significantly more samples on the extremes.
For example, two cities have an average household income of $70,000. One city has low variance; almost all households make between $60,000 and $80,000. The other city is a bit more extreme; half of the city makes less than $30,000, the other half making over $110,000.
Although the average household income is the same in both cities, the way you’d handle each city’s situation would be quite different.
Similarly, when talking about a specific group of people (artists, bankers, San Franciscans, New Yorkers, men, women, etc.), you’re missing the point if you only focus on the average person in that group.
On that note, I’ve noticed a lot of advice in books, blogs, lectures, and news publications tends to be worded to appeal to the most amount of people. In other words, vaguely pointed at the “average” person.
For example, here are a few headlines I’ve seen floating around the interwebs today, from both small and large publications:
- 3 Productivity Hacks You Should Be Using At Work (And 2 You Shouldn’t) (Huffington Post)
- 15 Ways To Stay Productive Over Summer Break (Buzzfeed)
- Don’t Speak: Three Situations Where You Should Never Offer Feedback (Forbes)
- People Should Work Less, According to Larry Page (Utah People’s Post)
- Why You Should Be Using Your Accountant for More Than Taxes (Entrepreneur)
Unfortunately, when people dole out advice that is meant to apply to a wide group of people (whether to sell a product or in an attempt to be genuinely helpful and build readership), you need to take it with a grain of salt.
Why? Simply stated, you’re not average. In fact, as we pointed out at the beginning of this post, the idea of an “average person” is a myth.
Side note: For a brilliant talk on the topic of the “average person”, I’d highly recommend watching The Myth of Average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty
You’re a unique combination of personality traits, skills, desires, thoughts, and expressions. You’re anything but average, which means that following cookie-cutter advice – designed for the “average person” – can be unwise, if not dangerous.
For example, just because Steve Jobs has given advice that can be summed up as seven rules of success, doesn’t mean that you should follow them to a tee. For example, note the number one piece of advice in this Steve Jobs article: Do what you love.
Personally, I’ve found that the advice to do what you love can do more harm than good, as it’s not always possible to simply “figure out” what you love. This is well argued by various thought leaders and scholars on the web, and I’ve found better success following alternative recommendations on this subject (in particular, passion isn’t something you seek; for many, it grows over time from mastery of a skill set).
So what’s a unique individual – in other words, everyone on the planet – to do instead of accepting advice designed for mass appeal?
Doubt and experiment.
Set up a filter for any recommendations, advice, or wisdom you receive, especially if it wasn’t based on a careful consideration of who you are as an individual.
Unless you read it on this blog, of course.
In all seriousness though, this idea of strict trial and error is the basis for much of what I’ve figured out in my life. I’d estimate that 5-10% of the recommendations I test out actually work well for me. By being a harsh judge, I’ve saved tons of time that used to be spent forcing myself to be patient with ideas and advice that simply didn’t fit.
Note: This technique doesn’t apply to building habits. Habits will require time and patience no matter how well it fits into your lifestyle.
If there’s one thing to remember here: You’re not average. Average is a myth. Any recommendation that’s made for the average American, man, woman, accountant, entrepreneur, whatever, should be taken with a grain of salt, and diligently tested. If it passes your test, great. If not, move on and wait for the next round of ideas to come your way.