Large Standard Deviations

We all know a person who has one extremely negative quality about them and yet still seems to get ahead. This can take many forms such as being a complete asshole to having no people skills whatsoever. For the average person, it can often be disheartening to see these people get further and further ahead of you. Yet, if we delve a little deeper into the make up of this ‘undeserving’ person, we can quickly see that they must have some qualities that separate them from the pack. Interestingly, when you average out their good and bad qualities, you may find that their overall abilities are only mildly above average, albeit with a much larger standard deviation compared to the average person.


If we accept this to be true, then it becomes quite easy to understand why the ‘bad person’ seems to get ahead so easily. Consider the following simple formula to success.

Success = risk * overall ability 

For now let’s assume overall ability is constant. That is, you, the ‘fair and reasonable worker’ has the same overall ability as the ‘asshole’ that always seems to be getting ahead of you.

Now consider the economic theory that people must be amply compensated for the risk they take on (the risk vs reward conundrum). Obviously, if you like to play it safe, you could be considered as risk adverse and conversely, if you like to gamble you could be considered as a risk taker. Essentially your level of risk aversion, will influence your potential for rewards.

same game pills

This is no different to your working environment. On one hand you have yourself, the self judged, fair, calm, risk adverse, slightly above average person. On the other, you have the risk taking ‘asshole’ who is loud, obnoxious, inconsiderate, possibly incredibly smart, who overall is still only slightly above average. 

If we now go back to our formula, it’s now hard not to see why this person seems to be always getting ahead of you.


However, before you take this post as permission to become an asshole and start taking unnecessary risks you have to remember one key thing – standard deviation.

Standard deviation in this case is the spread of personality traits or abilities you display (all things considered). In your case, the ‘quieter’ you are, the smaller your standard deviation is. You can therefore be quite safe in the knowledge that you will constantly achieve above average results with limited difficulty. 

Looking to our successful ‘friend,’ we can see that they have a huge spread which is why it may be quite easy for them to produce something way above average. Yet their biggest strength is also their biggest Achilles heel. If they are able to produce something amazing, they are just as able to produce something that is entirely shit. 

If you consider that, you should realise that their best may be better than yours. However, never forget that their shit is going to be miles worse than your version of crap (a position I would never want to be in).

The point here is to now stop resenting this person and instead start respecting the ‘work game.’ Every game has a certain set of rules and sometimes to win, you have to take a big risk.

love the risk takers resized

I think if you can understand that, you may find that the ‘underserving’ person may now be more ‘deserving.’ You may still envy that person, but you shouldn’t resentment them for taking a risk. What you should be asking yourself is the question – am I getting ample reward for the risks I’ve taken?



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