On those on top of the Gaussian (series: notes to myself)

This is a Gaussian curve. It is an elegant, bell-shaped curve that shows a normal distribution. The equation that generates it can be a bit off-putting. But when you look at it, you can immediately see that there are fewer things on the left, fewer things on the right, and many things in the middle. Take, for example, people and their moral lives. Very bad and very good people are rare, and that’s why the curve starts and ends so low: devils on the left and saints on the right. In the middle, you find most of us, just poor devils and decent sinners, who sometimes err and sometimes do the right thing. We are legions, and we are in the bulk of the Gaussian. Because virtue is in the middle – in medio stat virtus, as they say – only when left and right of the Gaussian are extreme excesses, not when it comes to how many people exercise virtues successfully.

Shift from moral to intellectual achievements, and the story is not very different, but with a twist. Many so-called meritocratic systems are, in fact, Gaussian, but in the sense that successful people are those at the very top, not on the right.

Of course, these are broad generalisations, but… if people are on the left, that usually means that they may be disadvantaged, unlucky, discriminated, perhaps not very gifted, or less than hard-working, or..., but if they are on the right, they may be outliers, unorthodox, too awkward, excessively single-minded… misfit in other ways.

So intellectual Merit is often dominated by Mediocrity. Because Mediocrity is also the jury, not only the judged, and so Mediocrity promotes itself, and more Mediocrity excludes misfits on her left and on her right. Mediocrity co-opts the perfect mediocrities, who end up at the very top of the Gaussian. People on the right called them overachievers (not in the sense of high achievers, but of achievers beyond their merit). For anyone else, they are the best.

Mediocrity owns the middle of the Gaussian and the best mediocrities are often the most successful, people. Of course, those excluded by Mediocrity do not know on which side of the Gaussian they lie. Is Alice a misunderstood or unrecognised genius, on the right, or just an obvious fool who thinks too highly of herself, on the left? Peer recognition fails, for she is a misfit; it’s just unclear of what kind. And self-assessment is dangerous: not every misfit is an Einstein. On the contrary, Alice knows that many foolish people justify their lack of success, their exclusion from the top of the Gaussian, precisely by arguing that they are too smart to be successfully mediocre, but that this is the ultimate delusion. “I’m not failing. It is the world that does not get me” is a dangerous position to hold. Because most of the time, the alleged genius is just a silly person who thinks she has found a way of proving how to travel faster than light or square the circle. And so, if Alice is sensitive to peer pressure and smart enough to doubt herself, she will try to move to the centre, which may be a good thing if she is coming from the left, but a bad one if she was on the right. She could have been a Mozart, but she is now trying to be a Salieri.

Is there anything that Alice can do about this? 

Sometimes genius recognises genius, like in the case of Dilthey, who is reported to have stated – during the discussion that was part of the exam of Cassier’s Habilitation: “I would not like to be a man of whom posterity will say that he rejected Cassirer”. I always thought this sentence to be extraordinary, not just because of the courage, but also because of the confidence to know that posterity will give a damn about you and what you did or did not do. But then, he was Dilthey, after all, and here I am quoting him for not having done something that would have been truly embarrassing. So, Alice hopes and seeks to encounter people who can value her intellectual gifts and unprecedented ideas. Her right-to-the-Gaussian peers, not more top mediocrities.

Some other times, it is a matter of character, more reflection, and less self-doubt. Alice must keep open the possibility that she might be on the left-hand side, while working hard on her ideas and intuitions, hoping that she might actually be on the right, and that one day the world will recognise her merits. There are achievements that even Mediocrity cannot fail to acknowledge. In doing all this, she may also play the system, fitting, when necessary, as only a smart misfit may be able to do, knowing the rules and adapting to them. If she wishes to succeed, she may try first to be at the top of the Gaussian. Once there, and only then, she may show her true colours and nicely slide to the right, leaving Mediocrity behind.

In any case, what she should try to avoid is to be envious of the people at the top of the Gaussian. For it is preferable to fail to be much better than to succeed in being just good enough.


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