In the movie adaptation of “The World According to Garp”, the main character and his fiancée are appraising a house for potential purchase. Suddenly a small plane crashes into the side, inflicting massive damage on the structure. With almost no hesitation, Garp declares that they should buy the house. “The chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical,” he says. “It’s been pre-disastered.”
Regardless of what you think of his real estate acumen, the main character has intuitively grasped an essential aspect of risk management. It's a bedrock principle of mathematics called “reversion to the mean”. Like many elegant mathematical concepts, this one has passed into the realm of philosophy, coexisting as a useful metaphor in worlds outside math as much an axiom inside. For creative people (that’s you, right?), it's also an essential concept to review.
Reversion to the mean suggests that the greater the variations of any given measurement from the mean, the more likely the next measurement will deviate less far. Mathematically speaking, this is an objective statement, not subject to forces like choice—the reason why Garp’s declaration has some logic to it. But from a non-mathematical perspective, there's a vital message here. Just because something has been a spectacular success does not automatically mean the next action will be equivalently effective. Excellence is hard to find, but excellence is just as unlikely as a spectacular crack-up resulting in wreck and ruin. Without substantial effort, it seems we’re stuck in the middle.
In terms of creative actions it’s easier to slide towards the negative than it is to the positive. Excellence isn’t only hard to find, it’s hard to approach. Some days it's even hard just to be good. Life kicks you around, and the daily battle is sometimes just about making it to the next day intact. We all revert to the mean when we do the things that we know work. It’s a self perpetuating trend, proving the phenomenon every time we achieve so-so results. Actions that deliver middling results tend to be things we repeat, no matter how hard we try to tip the balance toward brilliance. We tend to do things today that worked out yesterday.
Here’s the problem: excellence requires deviation from the mean. It requires a trajectory towards the narrow, right-hand side of the bell curve. It requires something out of the ordinary. Clients don't often know what it means in terms of asking for precise parameters, and we often don't know precisely how to give them the excellent results they want. Good results? Sure. But excellent? Not so easy. If we knew how, we wouldn’t sweat over deadlines. We wouldn’t hold our heads as the pressure builds. If we knew how to be excellent all the time we’d sleep easier at night. Everyone WANTS to be great, of course, but that’s not the same as being great.
An old adage for winning a running race says that to defeat the opposition one simply needs to move his or her legs faster than the competition. In terms of creative excellence, we might extend the thought to simply avoid doing mediocre things. Why don’t we just accentuate the positive?
The reasons why are elusive but not complicated. It’s useful to recall the basic principal of inertia here. The greater something’s inertia, the more energy will be required in order for to change its state of motion. Said another way, it takes more to deliver more.
Creativity is not purely a function of effort. Unlike physics, creative results are often the result of elegant inflections that move mountains. Inspiration, insight, deft hands, perfect timing, and other intangibles can have as profound an effect on the outcome of events as plain hard work. But bringing those intangibles to the forefront of action requires force of will.
That brings us full circle. Force of will requires deviation from the mean. It’s easier to do approximately what you did yesterday. It’s harder to push into uncharted territory.
And it doesn’t matter what you do. Whether you’re in business, in arts, in science, or in education, we all revert to the mean if we’re not consciously paying attention. I know some wiseacre will try to skewer this idea by pointing out an ironic logic flaw, that if our actions result in more frequent excellence, the “mean” will move to the left. To that I say, “Not so fast”. The real irony is that this attempted torpedo actually proves the rule. As the mean moves with our increasingly positive results, our middling results improve in sync. Our mean gets better as we get better. Reversion to the mean doesn’t tell us that we’re doomed forever to achieve forgettable results. It also doesn’t absolve us from trying to deliver results on the high performance side of the qualitative chart. That’s always the goal! Reversion to the mean reminds us that we’re always in competition with our own standards, and that the moment we decide to stop learning from what we did yesterday, the majority of our work—the fat part of the bell curve—will be of lesser value than it might be if we aimed higher.