New human performance research is out suggesting that the bell curve all of us associate with the distribution of human performance is wrong. (NPR article here: http://n.pr/IXJlm5) The study examined over six hundred thousand people in four broad performance categories (academics writing papers, athletes at the professional and collegiate levels, politicians and entertainers). The study found that a disproportionate amount of each category’s productivity (as often indicated by awards and recognition) was accounted for by a small number of superstars. The observed disproportion is far greater than what would be predicted by a bell curve and instead fits a power curve. The implication of performance fitting a power distribution is that most people in each category are below the mathematical average. It turns out that we’re not all, on average, average. The bell curve assumption has so shaped our understanding of performance that this new idea may be a bit disconcerting. Nevertheless it has implications for career making.
Origins of the Bell Curve
The authors speculate that the reason the bell curve took form at all was due to evaluations of industrial performance. For example, an assembly line isn’t built to maximize the performance of each individual worker. It’s built to work efficiently when everyone performs at the same pace. The limiting constraint is either the slowest worker or the machine. The authors contend that this is what forced performance to converge around an average. When most people are given a task and time to practice—constrained by the speed of the machine—they all perform about the same.
But in performance situations in which there is no outside constraint, superstars prevail and with them the overall productivity of the population. Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Hiring Managers Don’t Hire on the Bell Curve
I believe that most hiring mangers already evaluate candidates with this assumption in mind. They’ve learned to look for outliers for two reasons. Either because in some industries there remains a surplus of candidates that are, at the face of it, interchangeable, or they work in an industry which requires truly scarce expertise. If you have a scarce, in-demand expertise that is very easy to indicate on a resume (think IT certifications), be thankful. Hiring managers will beat a path to your door; you just need to make it known to the right people.
If one’s expertise is less simply proven, candidates must develop a pitch and argument for why they are a superstar—an outlier among the 100s of other candidates. In the Legacy Career period, managers could be confident in hiring the next decent looking person to show up on time. After all, that person simply needed to perform at an average level to keep the machines going. Today, managers in the knowledge-based economy want outstanding employees who outperform the average and improve the company’s plausible value to clients. Corporations must compete to appear to be outliers among their peers and therefore so must we. Candidates will have the easiest time competing where the competition is least. In other words, don’t go modal. Instead, go to the tail. Figure out what you do better (and have done better) than any of your peers. What do you love doing that they hate or ignore? Like any good political candidate you should find, highlight and articulate the differences not swim in the similarities.
Many recent grads don’t feel much like a superstar. And that’s probably justified in terms of not having years of obviously valuable accomplishments on their resumes. However, nearly all of us have achieved some results that mattered—if not we weren’t paying attention. Likewise, hiring managers can be wooed into buying into your superstar potential through your passion and enthusiasm for what they believe. Figure out what they believe by using informational interviews to access information about your target industries and organizations. Without knowing the audience, you will have a difficult time articulating a persuasive value proposition to hiring managers. Only after knowing your audience, may you then know thyself.
Here’s what Katy Perry had to say about the Bell Curve.