Quitting Your Addiction to Average
“Evolve or die.” -Ray Dalio
Doesn’t it feel good to be a little above average? To look around at your contemporaries, see that your paycheck is just as good or a little higher than the average professional’s, that your job title is just as lofty, that your house is just as big, that your electronics are just as new, and that you’re just as good-looking or even a little better looking than the average? But as you settle into the comfort of that knowledge, the slow poison of an insecure, complacent mediocrity sets in. Comparing yourself to the average is the professional’s drug-- it makes you feel good, but it’s highly addictive, limits potential, and is often fatal to careers.
One of the reasons why comparing ourselves to the average is dangerous is because, too often, our perception of the average is skewed. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal published an article that featured a research study done by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. The article was titled “The Venture Capital Secret: 3 Out of 4 Start-Ups Fail.” It spiked a buzz in the business and economic community, and was cited and referenced across multiple internet news platforms. In the study, Ghosh exposed the misleading statistic disclosed by The National Venture Capital Association stating that only 25-30% of venture-backed businesses fail. Instead, he attested that only 35% of businesses last a decade, and that less than 5% of businesses manage to see the projected return on investment. In other words, most venture-backed startups fail.
This study rocked the world of business because it highlighted how wrong we were to feel safe resting in the average. Being in the average, at least as far as startups and new businesses went, actually meant failure.
This kind of information can be jarring. It’s even more stressful to know that 50% of marriages fail, that the average American over the age of 20 is either overweight or obese, and that grade inflation is such a serious problem that the average grade of American high school or university student has been inflated from a C to B grade. These stats bother us because, too often, we measure ourselves against the average to determine whether or not we’re achieving success. But the problem is that being average doesn’t equate success. Average thinking is the opposite of excellent thinking.
As human beings, professionals, students, entrepreneurs, creators, and innovators, we are not optimized when we’re “better than.” We are optimized when we’re our best. So how do the best leaders avoid falling into the trap of comparing themselves to others? How do they quit the addiction to average?
It’s actually quite simple, really. Instead of focusing on just surviving and keeping their head above water, just keeping a couple steps above average, truly high-performing leaders forget about the average and baselines altogether-- they focus on learning from excellence and always trying to evolve.
In our own insecurity, often we shy away from excellence and people working to be their best because they make us feel below average. But people who accomplish true greatness drink it up. They constantly try to surround themselves with excellence, learn from it, and apply it to their lives. They are people who find their vision and motivation, not externally, but within themselves. They don’t allow things like pride and insecurity to cloud their judgment and affect their actions. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they’ll seek out people who do. They’re people with mentors. They’ll take risks and go out on a limb and do things that are out of the ordinary because they’re not afraid of failing. They’re too busy looking up to look down.
Steve Jobs once said,
“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”
Life is too short to not make it excellent. So if you want to be your best, be uncomfortable with the average and slightly-above-average. Or better yet, stop worrying about the average and try to focus on being the most excellent version of yourself possible. Surround yourself with people who make up for areas you lack in-- don’t let your insecurities turn you away from a team that will raise you up and help you become better. Be uncomfortable in complacency, and get comfortable with a constant upward evolution.
And the next time you’re tempted to get validation by comparing yourself to the average, shrug off the urge. You have greater things to think about.
As a three-time CEO, with two successful exits, I have learned few things in the trenches. Now I'm a full-time executive coach and people advisor. Check out my podcast, SEEKING EXCELLENCE, which profiles leaders that are working to be the best version of themselves.
Note: Many thanks to Morgan Reber for her significant contribution to the creation of this article.