80/20: How reality shifts when we focus away from the average

OCTOBER 19 — The average doesn’t tell us much.

If on Monday you ate one nasi lemak for breakfast, lunch and dinner (which makes three nasi lemaks in one day), your average nasi lemak per meal is one. 

But if on Tuesday you skipped breakfast and lunch and ate three nasi lemaks for dinner, your average is the same  but the effects are completely different

To equate the dietary outcomes for both Monday and Tuesday simply because their averages are the same would be a mistake. 

The former is “safe” and normal, whereas the latter offers the benefits of caloric restriction (and maybe the risks of sambal overload).

Likewise your lifestyle will be very different if, after earning about RM5,000 per month for many years, you suddenly earn RM60,000 in one month with no assurance you’ll get anything more for the next 11. 

From being a normal wage-earner getting a “steady” income, now you’d resemble the (average!) entrepreneur whose revenue is more dispersed and uncertain.

In the stock-market, most people try to get small to moderate “average monthly returns” from their stock picks. But traders like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, at least in the past, focused on waiting and waiting and waiting, even accepting small losses over many months, until — wham! — one huge crisis comes and he wins big while the “average” stock market player loses almost everything.

Let’s try another example from the world of gyms. 

The numbers are just illustrative, but lifting a five-pound barbell 10 times should produce very different results from lifting (or trying to lift!) a 50-pound barbell one single time. 

Hence, some people spend a very short time in the gym doing heavy deadlifts and nothing else (compared to people who stay for two to three hours).

The point is that you experience life and reality differently when you focus on the dispersions, the extremities, and the “long-tails.”

Even with Covid-19, many scientists and journalists are now insisting we look away from the popular R0 (pronounced R-naught), which measures the average number of new cases that one case will create to k, the measure of the virus’ dispersion. 

In a particular country or location, is Covid19 spreading in small steady increments or in large sudden bursts? Almost every piece of research suggests that it’s the latter i.e. this virus does NOT follow some steady straight-line path of progress (see the articles in the Further Reading list below). Instead it grows in unpredictable jumps and spurts.

Just like the famous Pareto Principle, a majority of infections are caused by a minority of spreaders. This is most obvious in the case of “Patient 31” from South Korea who was the starting point of more than 5,000 cases in a megachurch cluster back in March. 

Closer to home, the Sivagangga case in Kedah shows us that a few individuals may carry with them high viral loads, even as we suspect that not everyone who breaks quarantine creates a cluster. 

Likewise, as everybody knows, the Sabah clusters have ramped up our daily national average; and why our government didn’t close off the airports much earlier is anybody’s guess. 

Instead, because we didn’t take the Sabah cluster more seriously as we should have (was it because the average was still relatively low?), it has now led to conditional movement control order (CMCO) in KL, Selangor and Putrajaya.

Focusing on the ‘long-tails’ in life

So how about experimenting with moving away from the average in life? Just three examples below.

In education, instead of looking at your CGPA, think about those one or two subjects you are especially talented in. I recall one of my IGCSE students whose knowledge of History far exceeded that of his teachers.

In office, instead of obsessing over the average score of the KPI of your staff, reconsider how a certain employee is potentially the region’s best at just one activity (eg, Hong Kong contacts, Excel expertise, networking with agents, etc.). Don’t make the mistake of giving him a lower appraisal score just because he didn’t do that well in other KPI categories.

Finally, this one all Malaysians understand. Do you go to a makan place because it scores well on average for all the food there or because there’s just this one totally bad-ass nasi kandar that you’ll queue up three hours for?

‘Nuff said. Live on the edge. Lose the average (for once).

Further Reading

Adam, DC, Wu, P, Wong, JY et al. Clustering and superspreading potential of SARS-CoV-2 infections in Hong Kong. Nat Med (2020). 

Endo, A, Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases Covid-19 Working Group, Abbott, S, Kucharski, AJ, & Funk, S (2020). Estimating the overdispersion in Covid-19 transmission using outbreak sizes outside China

Kurchaski, A. (2020) The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and Why They Stop, London: Wellcome Collection

Lloyd-Smith, J, Schreiber, S, Kopp, P et al. Superspreading and the effect of individual variation on disease emergenceNature 438, 355 — 359 (2005).

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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