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What does it mean to be Normal?

It seemed to be the most important thing when younger. Being normal. Not standing out. God forbid you were seen as abnormal. There’d be no salvaging your reputation.

When you become older, and you seem to be finding your way in life, all of a sudden, normal is an awful concept. Normal is so boring. You have to be different from the rest. Stand out. Be better. You have to be excellent. It begs the question: What is normal? And why do we go from needing to be normal, to needing to be everything but normal?

Normal. Small word, large concept. The word in itself has become a very sociological concept, however that is not where it originates. Normal, in itself, is derived from “the norm” a statistical concept indicating the mean of a sample that follows a “normal” distribution. A normal distribution is also known as a bell-curve, because that is a good description of its shape. It is often (read: ideally), symmetric, with the highest density in the middle (the mean). Its extremities are of a lesser density, as they are the least frequently occurring and as such are much smaller or flatter.

The “normal” in normal distribution refers to the way it is structured. A good example of a normal distribution is heights. Think of the people in your country. How tall are they? I’m from the Netherlands, and people there are very tall. If we look at women in my country, the average height is about 170 cm. However, that doesn’t mean everyone is (close to) that height. There are women who are a bit shorter, and those who are a bit taller. There are also women who are a lot shorter, or a lot taller. However, the more the height deviates from the mean, the less frequent it occurs. That’s how statistics, and in this case the normal distribution, work. As such, normal just means the mean, or the most frequently occurring.

But what happens if we look into its opposite? An even more controversial term: abnormal. There is more to a normal distribution than its mean. It has a standard deviation as well. If you look back up to the picture, you see percentages within the curve. These percentages determine how likely a value is to occur. From our total sample of women’s heights in the Netherlands, we know the minimum, the maximum and the mean. The standard deviation is derived from the variance. The variance is the difference between the mean (the expected value) and the actual value, applied to all observations. This gives us the variance: the overall deviation from the mean of all the observations. The standard deviation is simply the square root of this.

Now apart from being a pain to calculate by hand, the standard deviation is useful. As said before, the percentages in the curve matter. 68% of observations within our sample will fall between the mean +/- 1 standard deviation. It determines how far the value is from the norm. The higher the standard deviation, the more “abnormal” a value is.

Statistically a rather simple concept. The closer to the mean, meaning, the more frequent its occurrence, the more normal something is. Seems alright to me. Unfortunately, society has taken this concept from an academic, descriptive domain and moved it into a social, prescriptive domain. The result? Normal is not what is, but what should be. And I bet you remember this from childhood and puberty.

Whether you enjoyed your younger years or not, try to rake up these memories. I remember going to high school. Most people had EastPacks. Rather small, how-will-I-ever-fit-all-my-books-in-there, type backpacks. I had a rather large, magenta Kipling backpack. Unfortunately, I also had braces, bad skin, glasses and self-esteem issues. I desperately wanted to fit in and not get bullied. So I had to have an EastPack as well. Childish? Absolutely. Necessary? Nope. But a great illustration of how “normality” works. And we all have stories like this. To be normal meant to fit in (with the majority). That was the ideal.

But then we became older. And suddenly fading into the crowd was no longer desirable. Where you first got bullied for getting high grades (yes, I’m a nerd, back off), now it made you smart, put together and cool. Don’t ask me who decided when the time to flip this opinion was. It happened. I went from nerd to sophisticated, in less than a year, without changing anything about myself. By this age, I no longer gave any f*cks. But it is weird isn’t it?

When people started to realise that normal meant performing as well as the majority, and that there was no price for being average, things started to change. Excellent was the new ideal. And excellent doesn’t exactly fit a mean. No, good means to be above the mean. Great meant at least one standard deviation above the mean. Excellent meant at least two standard deviations above the mean. And guess what? We can’t all be two standard deviations above the mean.

So yeah, take “normal” as a statistical concept. It’s descriptive of a distribution. It doesn’t have to be prescriptive of your own position in it. Be different, get noticed. Get hired, get promoted, or just get what you want from life.

I never got my EastPack in the end. My mom thought it was ridiculous to have to buy me two really expensive backpacks for school. And you know what? It teaches you what it means to be different. The beginning sucks and then guess what? People stop caring. It was then that I realised that abnormal suited me just fine. And I’ve been rather abnormal since. It has become my new normal. And it’s working in my favour.

Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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