What can you learn about life from a Normal distribution?

Key takeaways:

  • Most people are ordinary people;
  • This may sound ‘cruel’ but that’s a fact;
  • Elite performers have certain qualities that help them excel;
  • Laggards tend to miss some of those qualities and sit in the left tail of the distribution;
  • It’s possible to improve performance, if one seeks help.

Students in an elite university don’t always perform super well. In my early career of being a professor, I saw this and I thought there must be something I could do. So, yes, I tried. I tried many different ways to help those students who didn’t perform. I tried to do a bit more classroom tutorials. I tried to delay mid-term exam by one or two weeks, so students would have more time to prepare. I tried to adjust my teaching techniques so to make ‘dry stuff’ more interesting in the classroom. But, trust me: there are always dry stuff that can’t be made interesting and I still need to go through them. (life isn’t always sweet, is it? ^_<)

Years later, I came to a realisation: no matter what I do in the classroom (more efforts or less), the student result distribution is always close to a Normal distribution. This realisation means a lot.

The vast majority of the society are in the middle section of the Normal distribution (a.k.a. the Bell Curve). (Picture credit)

First, most students in the class are just ordinary students. For students in the ‘ordinary’ group of a top university, they are already in the right tail of the Normal distribution of the whole society; that’s why these are elite universities. However, asa society, we tend to pay way too much attention to those elites from sports super stars, to super wealthy people, to super successful entrepreneurs, and to some super smart kids in the school. We forget the fact that most people are ordinary and ‘ordinary’ means ordinary. That’s it.

Second, performance laggards are always there in the left-tail of the Normal distribution, just like those performance elites, no matter what I do in teaching. Then, why? Could I turn those laggards into elites? To answer my own question, I came up with some observations after spending 19 years in the university:

Photo credit: Shore School, Sydney Australia.
It’s hard to be gritty but grit pays off!

#1, it’s the motivation. Top performers tend to have strong motivations to perform. They know what they want to achieve and why they want it. It could be top academic results or in the career, top positions or money.

#2, it’s the planning and execution capability. Top performers can plan their own works ahead and achieve goals. Planning sets up the pathway to the goal and execution just does the job. This applies not only to study but also to one’s career and family life.

#3, it’s how one handles the complexity in life. I have seen students who work for 30 hours per week while achieving high distinction results in my class. For sure, I have also seen students working less hours or no casual work at all, and perform poorly. From this perspective, performance is not a function of hard working but how one handles his life ‘as a whole’.

We need to learn to drive ourselves to the goal.

Putting the three elements together, then it’s not hard to see why some students perform better than others. If you manage to have #1 and #2, you may perform but if you can’t handle your time allocation and a busy life, then without #3, you will still suck. If you have #3 and #2, but not much #1, then you will have ordinary performance because you don’t have motivation to improve and perform.

Put this formula to someone’s professional life, and you will find that this formula works equally well. People perform super well in their career when they have #1, #2 and #3. How often do you find someone who don’t appear to like doing their jobs? They basically lack all elements in their performance. Have you seen people who do jobs OK and hang on there for long? These people do their jobs without #1. Without passion and motivation, one will not excel at a job but can do the job.

I also see many people who has #1 but can’t do #2 well and is too busy to make #3 happen. They have passion and goals but can’t plan and execute well amid a busy (and often complex) life. Then, why don’t they ask for help?

With proper coaching and help, these people can excel in their lives and career because they have already got #1. A good coach can help improve #2 and #3. Then, magic will happen.

Looking for guidance? Check REEAConsulting.com. (Picture credit: https://unsplash.com)

So, what have you learned about life from a Normal distribution? You probably have mapped yourself onto the Normal distribution and tried to figure out where you were. ^_^ Well, that’s a good start!

Dr. C. Richard Wu@ REEAConsulting.com


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