For those of you who follow basketball, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors just had the greatest season in NBA history. He’s beat Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and Rick Barry and has a 30 points per game average. He has the story of an underdog risen to the top as a result of amazing work ethic and dedication. He’s also recognised by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s greatest leaders. He is also 28 years old.
Curry’s profile is that of a supreme athlete and many people are inspired by his story of achievement. This is where we find inspiration – in exceptional human beings who attain heights the rest of us aspire to. And there are people like Curry in all professions. We read about them in articles and books, watch them on screen and follow them on social media to try to understand their success a bit more so that we can sprinkle what magic insight they’ve attained on ourselves.
Looking for a top performer
In the world of jobs, every employer is looking for a top performer, and there is great rationale for it. A study conducted by Hunter, Schmidt and Judiesch (1990) showed that the top 1% of workers were 50% to 126% more productive than the average worker. The more complex the job was, the higher the productivity. With more top performers, companies could reduce their staff numbers while increasing revenue. No surprises there. But the reality is that average performers make up the majority of any company. If everyone was exceptional, that itself would be the average benchmark.
I know that most people loathe to think themselves as “average”. If you search “feeling average” on Twitter, you’ll find that it is viewed as a terrible state of malaise, and we try all sorts of things to rid ourselves of that feeling of being lesser than someone else – even if that person has 25,000 followers on Twitter and just so happened to be at the right place at the right time (a gift of the world also known as luck).
The fact is that the benchmark for success has raised so significantly over the past 20 years that we actually have to work harder than our predecessors to maintain the average. Then once you’ve given it all you’ve got, you’ve got to tell the world about it by marketing your achievements – another skill set to master which has levels of performance of its own! It’s a tough job, enough to make anyone feel down on themselves. I feel it all the time. I enjoy being surrounded by people who are far brighter and more skilled than I, but comparing is exhausting to the point that sometimes the idea of doing absolutely nothing is more appealing (which is somewhat ironic as I am married to an organisational psychologist, who is a big believer in constant personal improvement).
Recognizing the reality of the fact, I think we need to shift the focus on putting all our efforts into being perceived as exceptional to asking the question of what are we the average of, and also develop a culture of greater self-compassion.
If we are truly the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with, then we should start investing our mental and physical efforts in finding great working environments to belong to, interacting with great people and developing meaningful personal relationships. Not obsessing about how much more needs to be done to meet whatever criteria we have created out of comparison – be it the size of our paycheck or number of LinkedIn connections.
One of the greatest quotes on the topic comes from an infamous sailor: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam”. There is great merit in being average in an awesome demographic we have chosen for ourselves. Doing so gives us the space to appreciate our individual potential and limitations, while enjoying the knowledge that there is better out there and we’re surrounded by it.
Hunter, J. E., F. L. Schmidt & M. K. Judiesch. “Individual Differences in Output Variability as a Function of Job Complexity.” Journal of Applied Psychology 75, 1990, 28-42.