The Secret of Regression to Mediocrity
Success = Some Talent + Luck
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck
The term ‘regression to mediocrity’ (also known as ‘regression to the mean’) was first coined by Francis Galton in 1886. Galton showed that, on average, the children of tall parents tended to be shorter than their parents, and that the children of short parents tended to be taller than their parents.
The point is that height is partly determined by your genes, and partly by the environment you grow up in (e.g. food, healthcare, etc). A confluence of good genes and a good environment might produce a very tall person. If that tall person has a child with another tall person, sure, the child will have good genes – but they certainly aren’t guaranteed to have a good environment. In fact, they’re probably just going to have an average environment. That means that the child, on average, just isn’t going to be as tall as their parents.
This applies for all sorts of different things wherever luck, or random chance, is involved. Take gambling. Imagine I win the World Series of Poker this year. Now, if this happened, you would agree that I must be a pretty excellent poker player; perhaps even the best poker player in the entire world. Would you expect me to win next year? Even 50% odds? Probably not. But why?
Luck. We all know that there is a significant element of luck in poker, simply in the cards that you are dealt. I don’t just need to be highly talented to win the World Series, I need good luck. To win again next year, I would once again need good luck – which by definition is hard to come by. So, I might do very well, but I probably wouldn’t win.
There are people who’ve won the World Series twice. Since the tournament began in 1970, four players have won multiple times. However, it hasn’t happened since 1988, when there were only 167 entrants. Last year, there were 6,358. It’s much easier to to be luckier than 100 other people twice in a row, than it is to be luckier than 6000 people.
Many people like to ascribe success to all sorts of different factors, like religion, schooling, discipline, fitness, sex, age, philosophy, etc. Not only does this help sell books, but it also lets us ignore the inconvenient, and (to some) slightly depressing fact that success – particularly great success – is down to sheer luck:
Randomly meeting a essential business contact on a plane.
Spotting a book on a shelf and, for no real reason, deciding to read it.
Your parents moving to an area that turned out to have a school that had a really great biology teacher. Being in the right place at the right time.
Luck isn’t everything, though*. People don’t create a company like Google by luck – it requires talent, and the more talent the better. You need to be smart, you need to be able to work hard and to spot opportunities. You may need a high degree of education, or a hard-won sense of intuitive.
(*Unless you win the lottery, in which case you are exceptionally lucky, and talent quite literally doesn’t enter into the equation. But we are talking about the role of talent in success here, and whether talent is enough on its own, not the universally-accepted fact that luck can result in good things)
However. Being an exceptionally talented scientist won’t automatically get you a Nobel Prize, any more than being a brilliant poker player will automatically make you win the World Series. It might get you in to a great university and make some important discoveries – and it might win you tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. To get to the very top, though, you need luck – and a lot of it.
Ah, but aren’t there some people who consistently create successful businesses, or win multiple Nobel Prizes? Yes, there are. Regression to the mean doesn’t dictate that if you have tall parents, you must be shorter than them – it just means that you are likely to be shorter than them. There will be a small proportion of people who are taller than their tall parents. Likewise, if you create a successful business, your next business isn’t likely to be as successful – but there’s a small chance it might be.
We only hear about those people who win out on that small chance. After all, those people who set up two, three or even four successful businesses (in a world of six billion, this is bound to happen a few times) are far more interesting to write about than those millions of people who just set up one. And it’s far more interesting to ascribe their success to getting up at 6am every day, eating a bowl of porridge and cycling 20 miles in the morning than to something as boring as luck.
This can only be thought of as defeatist if you believe that winning a Nobel Prize, becoming President, or winning the World Series is integral to your self-worth. Some people will have a lot of bad luck during their lives. Some people will be very lucky. Most people will have a bit of both, and they’ll succeed if they have talent. That success shouldn’t be sniffed at – and great success shouldn’t be thought of as the preserve of a superhumanly talented few.
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck