False Comparisons

April 2, 2011

The odds of becoming a professional athlete are 25,000 to 1.

The odds of becoming an astronaut are 12,000,000 to 1.

The odds of winning an Academy Award are 12,000 to 1.

We all grow up hearing these ridiculous statistics, which are generally paired with the unspoken advice, “So don’t even bother. It’s not worth the time or energy, and you’ll inevitably end up disappointed. Worse, you’ll inevitably disappoint.”

It’s not done maliciously. Instead, the approach is framed as one of “realism.” Dreams are good… but not if they get in the way of reality. Consider the stars… but keep your feet on the ground, please. This is how you raise a “well-balanced” little person.

And it’s damn effective. Because alongside these wild facts, we’re also taught to revere numbers. To trust them. To have faith in them.

What we are not taught is how to look at them correctly. We’re not taught that even these comfortable, cold, hard facts can be (and almost always are) presented with a spin that drastically affects perception. If you tell a patient their surgery has a 5% mortality rate, they’re significantly more likely to refuse the treatment than if you instead offer that 95% of patients survive. The New York Times recently published an article boldly claiming that blogging is dying, and the piece made viral-esque rounds around the Internet. Few people noticed though that only one number cited was actually a statistically significant decline (blogging among 12-17 year olds, with the noted caveat that even this may be an issue of semantics) — the majority of the figures mentioned were actually increasing. The words surrounding numbers tend to carry a much stronger message than the numbers themselves.

So back to the long odds.

We’re given these numbers and their implicit don’t-even-bother story, but too many people — often impressionable, uncertain young adults on the cusp of independence, grasping for guidance from those around them — don’t see their real significance.

Life isn’t just a lottery. You don’t have the same shot at becoming an astronaut as every person who’s ever been born — you have the same chance as the people who work as hard and as smart as you. Of the 12 million people cited up top, 10 million are complete non-players — they’d rather be teachers or doctors or forest rangers or wine tasters and they have their own competition to worry about. Boom, gone. Another 1.9 million realize somewhere between fifth-grade math and Calculus III that their dreams lie elsewhere. 99% of the competition is already out of the picture.

Of the 1% left, it’s the people at the library during lunch, on the tennis court at 5am, or in their office at 9:30 on a Friday night who succeed. It’s the people who take care to learn about all the myriad elements that contribute to success in their given field — I’ll tell you right now that in this realm, some of the most important ones are not the most obvious ones, and some of the most obvious ones are actually a complete waste of time. It’s the people who embrace that they’re not the best, and therefore recognize their need and capacity to improve — and then do something about it.

These are not obscure hoops to jump through. There is a base amount of work and a base amount of sacrifice that will eliminate a huge majority of your “competition.”

Granted, overcoming the few who are left (if “overcoming” is actually necessary — most situations are not actually one-or-the-other scenarios) will require a whole other ballgame. But that’s the fun game — where innovation happens and fulfillment is found.

The up-front work is vital though, and letting scary numbers get in the way is silly and detracts from the real issues. Not everyone wants the same thing as you and most people won’t do the work to get it, so don’t burden yourself with unnecessary worry about “the masses” on your way up — that brainpower could be much better utilized on your real priorities.

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