Monday, June 7, 2010

The Mathematical Improbability Of Being The Best

The unheralded gem Eric Falkenstein muses that,
The key is doing the best with what you can, the self-awareness and motivation to develop one's strengths so that your hard work generates a maximum payoff going forward. As Muhammad Ali once said, "You can be the best garbage man or you can be the best model--it doesn't matter as long as you're the best." 'The best' is mathematically improbable, 'really good' generates the same result. If you are really good at your job your day is filled with sincere gratitude by colleagues and customers....
There are two reasons that being "really good" generates the same outputs as being "the best." First, in professions that scale really well, randomness is going to play by far the largest role. This is the implication of Dean Simonton's equal odds rule (here) that the average publication of any particular scientist does not have a statistically significant chance of having more citations (a proxy for impact) than any other scientist's average publication. Furthermore, in Csikszentmihalyi's interviews of highly creative individuals (here), the most commonly mentioned explanation for success was luck. Second, in professions that don't scale well, it is really hard to determine who is the best anyways, because context becomes so important.

So, it's just as useful and probably less stressful to just try to be really good than to try to be the very best.