The Average Case

A colleague once said to me, “Nothing’s ever as good or as bad as people expect.”

We are terrible at predicting the future, and by our biases on a particular outcome. When we project a scenario, we expect everyone to play in perfect concerto. Our startups are destined to change the world. We fall in love with “The One”. We do this because it’s hard to account and adjust for every aspect that can and does deviate.

If most things curve around the average, then we should temper our bias. Not every startup will change the world, with most probably fade away into oblivion (in a world where mediocrity shouldn’t merit continued investments.) People are bombarded daily with ads (research debates if it’s hundreds or thousands), so your product has to be stellar to get any meaningful traction.

We depend on ambitious engineering estimates or bustling mockups. Our product ideas must change fundamental human behavior. I’ve run hundreds of A/B tests where the results were “no impact.” There’s nothing wrong with aiming for perfection, but relying on only best case scenarios will rarely work. The most likely outcome will, by definition, be the average case.

Silicon Valley contributes to this skew. Incredibly ambitious and talented people all share in a relentless pursuit of success (and greed). Our patron saints are not Gandhi or Mother Theresa, but rather Zuckerberg, Page and Brin, and the rest of the Midas list. It’s a race to the top and the only path is Up. But those who measure themselves by the lofty expectations will inevitably find disappointment.

These expectations apply to other people as well. Whether it’s yourself or others, we tend to expect the best (or sometimes the worst). Most people think they’re above average, especially in self awareness. When something unfolds less than our expectations, we rationalize it with external factors rather than our initial estimation.

We expect the best in our friends and spouses, and the worst in lawyers and communists. It’s incredibly silly to expect others to fit into the box we created for them, yet we find ourselves always disappointed (or delighted) when they don’t. Other people are equally complex as ourselves.

This principle of skew is in every aspect of life (most things operate in a strangely smooth normal curve), yet it’s somehow difficult to comprehend. Friendships, careers, politics and economics are all examples that subject to our imperfect expectations. Overcoming this bias requires us to deliberate complexities. Nothing’s ever as good or as bad as it seems.