The Nested Bell Curves

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I grew up a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers, and thus learned to love baseball above all other team sports. Because of that, I used to read Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, the annual geek’s guides to baseball statistics that were the precursor to the Moneyball era.

In one of those editions, he discussed baseball fans who watch a miserable player or a miserable team and say—nachos in one hand and a beer cup in the other—”I could play better’n that!” No, James said. No, you couldn’t. And he used the descending upper tail of the normal distribution to make his point. If there are thirty MLB ballclubs, and each team has an active roster of 25 players, that’s 750 men currently playing professional baseball at its highest level. These are the 750 best baseball players in a nation of roughly 200 million adults; that is to say, they are at the uppermost .00000375 of American baseball talent, five or six standard deviations above the mean.

You and I, alas, are not.

So imagine player #750, say a backup infielder for the Phillies, 2015’s worst team. There he sits, day after day on the bench, watching his team lose two out of three games all year. And yet, he is an immeasurably better ballplayer than any high school star, an unimaginably better ballplayer than you and I. He was born with the right physiology, he was born with some degree of innate talent, he got terrific coaching, and he has worked harder than any human being should ever have to work in their lives to be as fit and as capable as he is. He is, by any measure, an elite athlete. But in the microscopic bell curve of major league players, he is at the far left end of the graph, the bottom of the low tail.

All bell curves, James said, contain bell curves within them. Even within the rarified air of MLB rosters, far above us mortals, there are ranges of talent, with central tendencies and outliers at both ends.


Now, let’s take this analogy to the world of doctoral life. About 50,000 people a year get PhDs; about 1.5% of all American adults have one, according to the US Census. That would put us about two to three standard deviations above the mean of the general population’s educational attainment. Most people could not do this, and you should be proud that you can.

But when placed under the microscope, that leading tail of the bell curve has a bell curve within it. Every year, if 50,000 of us get PhDs, a few hundred are at the acknowledged top of that top; a few hundred are (sometimes identifiably) at the bottom; and most of us are somewhere in that big bulge in the center. In broad population terms, we are remarkably well educated; within our own little neighborhood, though, we might not stand out so clearly.

What does this mean in strategic terms? It means that even though you’ve finished your degree, perhaps even finished it with some degree of distinction, you still have a lot of work to do to differentiate yourself from the herd. Talent is necessary but not sufficient in an elite marketplace; you need allies, networks and marketing materials that can help push you up into that outer tail of success.