COMME CI COMME ÇA

The case for being average

People often read what I have to say and then write asking for my advice.

But even though I write about lots of things I am expert in only one thing: programming in a computer language called APL. I owe all my financial success and a good deal of personal joy to that funny little language, and if you want to learn how I did it and how you can too then go here.

So how have I been able to succeed in writing on these other subjects?

The answer came to me a few weeks ago as I was reading a book called How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy by my friend Dave Cohen. The promotional text bills it as a “practical and funny book explaining how to make a living at comedy” and it certainly is that. But it is also a very entertaining look at what has happened to comedy from Monty Python onward. But its broadest appeal comes from the fact that it is an insightful “how to” book on having an awesome life even if you are just average—whether at comedy or anything else.

At the bottom of page eight it hit me: For years I’ve been writing about being good at being average. I don’t write about things I’m rubbish at like Swahili and Astrophysics. And I don’t write about the one thing I’m expert at because nobody seems to have any interest in learning about things that involve really hard work.

(BTW, you don’t have to buy Dave’s book to read through page eight. You can do it on the Amazon preview. Although the preview does not show page numbers, page eight in the printed version ends with “… but those moments only helped embellish the opening chapter of the mythical narrative that my life story had just become.” Read that far and you’ll know what I am talking about and then you’ll want to buy the book.)

Three average secrets

Even though I hadn’t previously realized I was writing about being good at being average, there are three things about being average that I’ve known for a very long time.

It doesn’t add up—it multiplies

The first thing I know is that success is the product of relevant skills and not a sum. Imagine we give a score of 1 to someone with average skill and 0 to someone with zero skill it is possible that someone with exceptional skill might score 1,000 or even a 1,000,000; Yo Yo Ma plays the cello at least a million times better than the average person because the average person cannot play it at all. Back when I was trading stocks on Wall Street I was perhaps 1,000 times better than the average person at building trading systems, two times better than average at figuring out how to beat the market, and average at marketing myself. So, by my simple model, we can give me a score of 2,000 (1,000 x 2 x 1 = 2,000). But if I had zero skill at actually knowing how to beat the market my score would be zero (1,000 x 0 x 1 = 0). Or if I were as good as I was at everything except letting anyone know I was any good then my score would still be zero (1,000 x 2 x 0 = 0). To be successful you need only be excellent at one thing, average at few other things, and not terrible at any essential ingredients.

Mean beats median

The second thing is that being average usually gets you ahead of at least of half the people and in some cases it puts you way ahead of almost all of them. If you rank adult Americans from the poorest to the richest you’ll discover that the person smack dab in the middle has a net worth of $49,900. This is called the median. But if you added up all the wealth and divided by the number of people you’d find that the mean (aka average) wealth of an American is $301,000. This is because some super rich people are screwing up poverty for the rest of us; when Bill Gates walks into a bar all the dipsomaniacs in attendance become billionaires on average. Learn to be more mean and less median.

Learn to be happy being average or you will never be happy

The last and most important thing is that if you cannot be happy being average then you don’t know how to be happy—and being “successful” won’t do you much good. For most of us average is amazing and we should thank our lucky stars every day if we live indoors with enough to eat; we have it better than kings did 200 years ago. Our self-help culture and obsession with success is making us miserable and it has got to stop. Alan de Botton makes the case eloquently in his TED talk A kinder, gentler philosophy of success and if you want more then start with Michael Shermer’s review of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless and then read the book itself.

Many of us are experts at being average at lots of things

Now that Dave (my average comedian friend) has his book in print he’s discovered that like me he’s average at so many other things—between us we reckon ourselves to be Average at Wealth, Average at Humor, Average at Management, Average at Writing, Average at Finding Work, and a few others.

Dave’s latest goal is to become Average at World Peace. He has spent a lifetime successfully avoiding the world’s most troubled hot-spots such as Iraq, Syria, Serbia and the United Nations, but his latest project involves Jewish and Muslim performers in London coming together to create comedy. A mighty task.

Or is it?

Extremists on all sides may have mutually exclusive objectives, but I bet that 80% of the people caught in the middle would trade victory for a more average outcome, such as peace. The average relationship between any two randomly selected countries is peaceful because they don’t care about each other. It is hard for belligerents to get from hate to love directly, so the chant should be “Make Indifference, not War” because “Make Love, Not War” is asking for too much. Let’s be more bemused and less combative.

There’s no guarantee that Dave’s efforts will work, but since the “give peace a chance” crowd has had the problem for long enough I’m willing to let the comics have a shot at it. As the joke goes: What would you rather have, world peace or a ham sandwich? Answer: A ham sandwich because nothing is better than world peace and a ham sandwich is better than nothing. But a sense of humor is even better than a ham sandwich, especially for the Jews and the Muslims.

What would you like to be good at being average at?

Please go to our new website, AverageAt.com, and tell us what topics Dave and I should address next. Once we know what you want then we’ll get to work. You can count on us to do a barely adequate job and we’re counting on you to tell us which barely adequate job we should do first.

And never forget, you only have to be average at a few things to be great at what matters most, such as living with joy in your heart.

Visit Brooke’s website, brookeallen.com, for more on how finding work and doing it might be more fun. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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