How You Can Be Average and Still Do Better Than Most People

Lionel Yeo



In school, there was always a huge emphasis on being working hard. Why? Because even if you failed, at least you could say that you worked hard (and that in itself was a virtue that was supposed to alleviate the misery of failing). Well, Lionel Yeo has some interesting secrets to share on how you can work smart and still get ahead of the game:

I still remember the most horrifying moment of my student life.

It was 2010 and I was doing my final exam in Financial Economics. The exam had 6 questions – I only had to answer 4 of ‘em, and I would be home free with a Masters degree in my pocket, and an awesome summer ahead.

I flipped open the cover page and read the first question. Too complicated. I went on to the next one: No idea how to answer it. And the next: Didn’t study that topic. I went through the entire paper with an ever-increasing dread in my chest that I had no frickin’ idea how I was going to pass, even though I’d spent the last 4 months studying my butt off for the exam.

I scribbled whatever I could for each question, but I was shooting fish in a barrel. Most of my answers were a couple of miserable lines of guesswork. It got so bad that I even drew a sad face as one of my answers. When the time was up, I selected the questions where I’d written the most lines on (I left out the sad face one), and submitted them.

When I left the exam hall, I was devastated. I’d been a decent student all my life; now I was faced with the very real possibility of failure. I might lose my Masters, my scholarship, and my dignity.

The weeks leading up to the results were excruciating – I couldn’t eat, sleep, or savour the few months of beautiful London weather. When the results finally came while I was having dinner, I stopped eating and logged on. I might as well get it over and done with.

My results: I had my Masters degree. With Merit.

You couldn’t have made me happier even if you gave me a million bucks.


Why Being on the Curve Can Be a Good Thing

After the euphoria wore off, I started analysing why I passed. How could a couple of lines of scribbling have gotten me a passing grade? And then it hit me: The curve.

Most students hate being graded on a curve. If you score an 80 for a test but the rest of your classmates score 82, you still get a crappy grade because your performance wasn’t great relative to everyone else. But in some situations, being on a curve can HELP you, especially when everyone else isn’t great.

In my case, everyone else was probably just as stumped as I was by the exam – Financial Economics was notoriously known to be one of the hardest courses in my university. So even though I probably didn’t pass on an absolute scale, that was enough to mean the difference between success and failure. (Of course, I’m not discounting the fact that I studied like crazy for the exam, so my scribbles probably made some sense)

Sometimes, everyone else is so terrible that you only have to be half-decent to succeed.

Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich calls this the Craigslist Penis Effect: If any woman posts a “Women seeking men” ad on Craigslist, her inbox will be immediately bombarded by dozens of pictures of men’s penises. But any man who is half-decent and sends her a normal email would automatically outperform everyone else.

It’s not always about how good you are. In many areas, your success is measured by how you perform RELATIVE to other people.


How to be in the Top 3% of Job Applicants


Let’s take the job-search process, for example. Author Mark Manson wrote a post about how he put up a job posting to hire for two positions: a content curator and a digital artist. These were attractive jobs:

“Both positions were full-time, both offered the chance to work remotely and essentially live anywhere, and both provided an opportunity for daily creative work on a small web business that continues to grow at a breakneck rate. It was bound to be competitive.”

He received 707 applications, and only 24 of them were invited back to participate in a second round. That’s a success rate of 3%.

Here’s the surprising thing: It didn’t take much to get into the top 24. About 150 applicants were instantly eliminated because they didn’t follow basic instructions like “Include the letter ‘X’ at the bottom of the application” (which was buried in a paragraph to see whether people would read the post carefully before applying).

Out of the remaining applications, 24 were accepted because they positioned themselves correctly:

  1. Their application wasn’t about themselves, it was about how they could make their future employer’s life easier
  2. They showed examples of their work instead of random catchphrases like “team player” or “think outside the box”
  3. They demonstrated that they wanted the job for the right reasons.

The thing is, anyone who has read a book about careers would know this.

But most people don’t. Most people blindly send out their resumes to hundreds of job postings a week – They think that it’s just a “numbers game”. But they don’t stop to realise that if they just took 2 hours to make their application half-decent, they could have outperformed 97% of applicants.

Okay, I hear some people protesting, “Even if you were in the top 3%, you’d still have to be the best to get the job!” Well…not really. Yes, when you’re playing at that level, you have to be pretty damn good. But plenty of people get hired every day even if they aren’t the most qualified candidate. As Mark wrote in Part 2 of his post, sometimes how you position yourself can get you selected even if you aren’t the best.


How To Beat 80% of Investment Professionals


There’s another area of life where you can outperform most people without trying very hard: Investing.

Unlike a job application, no one ever said that you have to be the best investor in the world to succeed. You don’t have to be Warren Buffet or Peter Lynch, because investing isn’t a competition. You only have to be half-decent.

And you know what? It’s ridiculously easy to outperform most investors because most of your competition (and there’s no better way to put it) sucks.

Fun fact: Over 80% of professional mutual funds can’t even beat the market over the long-term (time periods of 20 years or more). And I’m sure the performance of most retail investors is much, much worse.

Yet, anyone reading this can match the performance of the market (my book shows you how). You don’t need to know any fancy strategies or own a proprietary algorithm. You only have to be half-decent by buying and holding the market, and that automatically puts you in the top 20%.


Where Else Can You Apply This?

When I first learned that you can outperform most people by being half-decent, it was a total game-changer for me. I started thinking about how this could apply to other areas of life.

For example, could you set up some simple productivity systems to dramatically stand out at your job? Could you write a half-decent application to get access to generous grants, subsidies or scholarships? Could you train for 30 minutes a week and get awarded $200 in IPPT incentives, when most people can’t even pass? Or with a bit of luck, could you pass a ridiculously difficult final exam with just a few scribbles?

What other opportunities could you seize by simply being half-decent?

zeligfilm, flazingo_photos, Marcos Vasconcelos Photography

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Lionel Yeo

I’m a ramen slurper, bathroom dancer, and financial hacker behind – a personal finance blog for college graduates and young professionals. I focus on fresh, simple, and honest personal finance strategies, which have been featured on the Sunday Times and Wordpress’ Freshly Pressed section.