The irresistable gravity of the mean

Mean: “In statistics, the mean is the mathematical average of a set of numbers. The average is calculated by adding up two or more scores and dividing the total by the number of scores.”

“The mean is just one type of measure of central tendency.”

I’ve long had this theory — I’m sure I’m not the first — that culture and creativity has these moments where equilibrium sets in and our art, music, choreography, all our creative endeavors, including less obvious things like interior design, architecture, and even fashion design, settles in to this groove. There is a gravitational force of average that becomes nigh on impossible from which to break free. Sometimes it is at a local level, or it might be a genre or discipline specific level. Sometimes it is because we may be honing a particular voice, we aren’t yet finished what we want to say in our chosen technique implemented.

We get into this average or central tendency of how things are or should be. It becomes difficult to be better than average, either by ability or motivation. It is super easy to fall into the trap of “This is as good as we need to be.” Sometimes it is even simply trying to be the best at the same thing as everyone else is doing. This is not in and of itself, bad, but nothing new happens.

I remember once asking someone I wanted to mentor, I wanted to help make him one of the best, “How good do you want to be?” His response was “How good do I need to be?” I pretty much walked away at that point.

It is our nature, I am convinced. The hard part is always trying to break out of that. Sometimes we have to break out almost totally from what we have been doing. Think of Bob Dylan when he first went electric. Think of Miles Davis when he went, well, I’m not entirely sure what he went to, but it was different from where he was before!

I heard Marcus Miller the other day on the radio talking about his discussions with upright bass players. He would tell them his chosen instrument is the electric bass. They would just say “That’s cool. You do you. That’s your thing. Make sure you know your history”.

I hear people all the time say that one can only be authentically different if you are fluent in some other technique first. Usually they mean you have to be skilled at classic form before you can break out to some new form. I get what they are saying.

I offer in response, do we have to learn Latin in order to speak english? Sure it can be helpful and even insightful. But it isn’t necessary. Sometimes we have to be different just to be different to even have a chance to break out of our routine and ruts or to change everyone else’s perception of what is good or right. Sometimes we try something new because what came before isn’t sufficient or it comes with too much baggage and inherent implications.

Sometimes it is to be subversive. Webster took it upon himself to break from our British roots and change words like ‘theatre’ and ‘colour’ to ‘theater’ and ‘color’ and change some uses of the letter ‘f’ to ’s’. We weren’t British anymore. Why speak and write like we were?

Language is a powerful influencer. A lot is wrapped up in language. They say history is written by the victor. I add that it is also written in a language that confirms and perpetuates the victor. Until the next uprising and the resulting change of language.

It takes effort to move beyond what is accepted and acceptable. It takes deliberate action. It takes recognizing things aren’t going to change without someone deciding to make things change. It takes awareness to look and see that this is not as good as it can be. Things can be better. Things can always be better. This isn’t as good as it gets.

Sometimes the average isn’t about skill, but results. We get caught in this loop that everyone may try to be better, but the result is simply being better at the same thing. The pull of the gravity of the mean is a powerful force. It is easy to sit back and let things ride. There is even some satisfaction in being known as the best at what everyone else is trying to do.

It is also lazy. I tell young lighting designers as often as they will listen to me, be audacious. Be different. Find what all the other lighting designers are doing and do something else. If everyone is using lots of color, use white. If everyone else is using white, use color. If half are doing one and the other half doing the other, do both!

Don’t accept good enough. Don’t even accept better than everyone else at the same thing.

Be audacious.

I hope there is something in this to ignite something in you to move from “here” to “there” wherever you are trying to go.

Thanks,
Joe

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