Fooled by outliers

While plotting graphs in high school, we were taught to neglect the outliers: points that lie well outside a normal cluster. We would do well to retain this situation in several real-life situations.

It is the stuff of legends that Miles Davis and band recorded the most famous album in jazz, Kind of Blue, in 9 hours of studio time. More people know this because it is exceptional – an outlier. The average music album takes about 90 to 150 studio hours.

We celebrate the methods employed by celebrities and world-famous performers across fields, hoping that by emulating their methods, we can achieve the same results. But it is often forgotten, that any ‘famous’ person is an outlier. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book to say how luck – unique circumstances and the right timing – is responsible in large part for their runaway success.

The events in the news are mostly outliers – plane crashes and terrorist attacks for instance. The normal airplane journey is entirely uneventful. The normal day in cities across the world doesn’t feature masked men driving explosives into crowded markets. By reporting outliers the news inadvertently distorts our perception of the world one article at a time.

Don’t let a steady stream of outliers distort your world-view.

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