The Curse of Meh: Why Being Extraordinary Is Not a Matter of Being Universally Liked but of Being Polarizing
By Maria Popova
After spending the entirety of my adult life as a noncitizen immigrant in America, perpetually toiling at the mercy of various visas, I am currently applying for something known as an “extraordinary ability green card” — a document granted to people whose contributions to culture the government deems valuable enough to offer them a slice of the American Dream or, at the very least, to make their lives a little easier by letting them stay in the country and continue to make said contributions with a little more dignity and peace of mind.
“Currently,” of course, is a relative term in any government system — it has been more than two years since I got on this hamster wheel of violent and violating bureaucracy. In the meantime, I have grown intimately familiar with the phrase itself — extraordinary ability. Any phrase turned over and over in one’s mind eventually becomes a sort of semantic puree vacant of meaning, almost nonsensical. As cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz elegantly put it, “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”
I’ve become particularly fascinated by the extraordinary part of “extraordinary ability.” At first glance, it implies exceptional, above-and-beyond-the-ordinary ability. But it seems to also mean, rather, the very opposite — extra-ordinary as in possessing an extra helping of ordinary.
The two most important components of the “extraordinary ability green card” application are a body of articles by and about the applicant in the “popular press” and a pile of reference letters from people whose names and respective letterhead-organizations are, as my lawyer put it, “household names.” Household names, of course, are by definition people and entities well known by the populace — and, in this context, they ought to be well known and esteemed, even beloved by the populace. It’s suddenly striking how being extraordinary becomes a matter of being maximally endorsed by popular opinion — by the norm, the average, the most ordinary bulk of society.
To qualify as extraordinary, it seems that you’re required to be diligently, verifiably ordinary.
This would be little more than a personally frustrating curiosity if it only applied to the limited case of “extraordinary ability green card” aspirants — but we also apply this paradoxical understanding of “extraordinary” to just about every aspect of life, from work to life.
Why that happens and how it limits our potential for truly extraordinary lives is one of the many revelatory insights writer, musician, and entrepreneur Christian Rudder explores in Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable look at how person-to-person interaction from just about every major online data source of our time reveal human truths “deeper and more varied than anything held by any other private individual,” and how the tension “between the continuity of the human condition and the fracture of the database” actually sheds light on some of humanity’s most immutable mysteries.
Rudder is the co-founder of the dating site OKCupid and the data scientist behind its now-legendary trend analyses, but he is also — as it becomes immediately clear from his elegant writing and wildly cross-disciplinary references — a lover of literature, philosophy, anthropology, and all the other humanities that make us human and that, importantly in this case, enhance and ennoble the hard data with dimensional insight into the richness of the human experience. Rudder writes:
I don’t come here with more hype or reportage on the data phenomenon. I come with the thing itself: the data, phenomenon stripped away. I come with a large store of the actual information that’s being collected, which luck, work, wheedling, and more luck have put me in the unique position to possess and analyze.
For the reflexively skeptical, Rudder offers assurance by way of his own self-professed “luddite sympathies”:
I’ve never been on an online date in my life and neither have any of the other founders, and if it’s not for you, believe me, I get that. Tech evangelism is one of my least favorite things, and I’m not here to trade my blinking digital beads for anyone’s precious island. I still subscribe to magazines. I get the Times on the weekend. Tweeting embarrasses me. I can’t convince you to use, respect, or “believe in” the Internet or social media any more than you already do—or don’t. By all means, keep right on thinking what you’ve been thinking about the online universe. But if there’s one thing I sincerely hope this book might get you to reconsider, it’s what you think about yourself. Because that’s what this book is really about. OkCupid is just how I arrived at the story.
Part of that story is our paradoxical relationship with the notion of the “extraordinary.” Unlike hot-or-not evaluations or Facebook’s unimodal “Like” function, OKCupid asks its users to rank one another based on a five-star rating system. (In one of his many perceptive asides, Rudder notes: “Websites ask you to vote because that vote turns something fluid and idiosyncratic — your opinion — into something they can understand and use.”) With five points of reference, there are suddenly degrees of opinion, which offer far more depth and dimension than a simple “yes”/”no” rating. To get three stars, it would seem, is to be rated “average.”
But this is where it gets interesting.
It is a simple mathematical reality that there are two ways of getting an average rating — either most people give you an average rating, or some people rate you really high and others rate you really low, yielding a cumulative middle ground. In mathematics, this concept is known as variance — the more spread out a set of numbers, the greater the variance.
What Rudder and his team found was that not all averages are created equal in terms of actual romantic opportunities — greater variance means greater opportunity. Based on the data on heterosexual females, women who were rated average overall but arrived there via polarizing rankings — lots of 1’s, lots of 5’s — got exponentially more messages (“the precursor to outcomes like in-depth conversations, the exchange of contact information, and eventually in-person meetings”) than women whom most men rated a 3.
Noting that OKCupid doesn’t publish these raw attractiveness scores and so no one’s ratings are being influenced by how others perceive the person being rated, Rudder writes:
In any group of women who are all equally good-looking, the number of messages they get is highly correlated to the variance: from the pageant queens to the most homely women to the people right in between, the individuals who get the most affection will be the polarizing ones. And the effect isn’t small—being highly polarizing will in fact get you about 70 percent more messages. That means variance allows you to effectively jump several “leagues” up in the dating pecking order— for example, a very low-rated woman (20th percentile) with high variance in her votes gets hit on about as much as a typical woman in the 70th percentile.
Having haters somehow induces everyone else to want you more. People not liking you somehow brings you more attention entirely on its own.
In other words, being extraordinarily attractive is a matter of receiving, as Rudder puts it, “lots of Yes, lots of No, but very little Meh.”
This pattern recurs in a more subtle way in another chapter, poetically titled “The Beauty Myth in Apotheosis” (after Naomi Wolf’s seminal book). Though Rudder discusses the below graph in a different context, I couldn’t help noticing the palpable “Meh” dip around the middle:
Men and women might experience beauty differently, but this “Meh” dip holds up even when the above data is broken down by gender:
The tyranny of “Meh,” it seems, is a counterintuitive curse — those whose appearance is slightly below average are equally attractive as those of slightly above-average beauty, and both groups are more attractive than the people of average appearance.
Rudder poignantly captures the deeper repercussions:
Even at the person-to-person level, to be universally liked is to be relatively ignored. To be disliked by some is to be loved all the more by others. And, specifically, a woman’s overall sex appeal is enhanced when some men find her ugly.
A man interested in such a polarizing woman is, as Rudder puts it, “into her for her quirks, not in spite of them” — another manifestation of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail Theory.
Indeed, the implications extend far beyond online dating and touch on the broader trap of public opinion. To play to public opinion or seek to please everyone is to aim at precisely that uncontested average, the undisputed and indisputable 3, obtaining which is a matter of being extra-ordinary rather than extraordinary. As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s — you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.
The bitter irony of the human experience is that while most of us celebrate nonconformity, we tend to conform even in our nonconformity. In order to succeed in a mass-market business — perhaps the ultimate enterprise of catering to popular opinion — we’re encouraged to be “ambiverts,” smack in the middle of the introversion-extraversion spectrum.
But the notion that variance is a good thing holds out across nearly every field of endeavor as well as in science. (Smell, the most direct of our senses, is best triggered by dissonant input.) In social science, it is known as “the pratfall effect.” Rudder explains:
As long as you’re generally competent, making a small, occasional mistake makes people think you’re more competent. Flaws call out the good stuff all the more.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Anne Lamott’s beautifully argued case against perfection, Rudder adds:
This need for imperfection might just be how our brains are put together.
Rudder’s conclusion might come off as a platitude, were it not for the hard data and profound insight behind it:
At the end of it, given that everyone on Earth has some kind of flaw, the real moral here is: be yourself and be brave about it. Certainly trying to fit in, just for its own sake, is counterproductive… It also sounds a lot like the advice a mother gives, along with a pat on the head, to her big-nosed and brace-faced son when he’s fourteen and can’t figure out why he isn’t more popular. But either way, there it is, in the numbers.
Rudder’s numbers shed invaluable insight on the original conundrum of “extraordinary.”
To be in the middle by consensus is to be mediocre, verifiably extra-ordinary; to be in the middle by polarization is to be exceptional, truly extraordinary.
Dataclysm is a trove of insight in its entirety, equal parts intelligent and irreverent — an extraordinarily unusual and dimensional lens on what Carl Sagan memorably called “the aggregate of our joy and suffering,” shedding light on such delicate questions as the psychological underbelly of anger, why some gay people stay in the closet, how writing has changed in the past decade, and what your social network reveals about the stability of your primary romantic relationship.
Published October 13, 2014