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Business & Work ● November 2016

What's the greatest piece of advice you've ever received?

One of the questions we’ve been asking folks during interviews for our design director role at We Are Mammoth is this: What’s the single best (or worst) piece of advice you’ve ever received? Lately, I’ve thought about how I’d answer this question myself.

I think the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received isn’t a famous quote. It isn’t a saying at all. Instead, it’s derived from a particular shape in mathematics: The bell curve. In some circles, it’s called the normal distribution curve or the Gaussian distribution. Regardless, its shape should be instantly familiar to you.

the bell curve

Now, before you roll your eyes, I promise, this post doesn’t get very mathematical at all. Fuzzy math, at best.

This shape has three distinct properties. At both ends, the curve tapers to the bottom. In the middle, it rises to some maximum. I think my relationship to all ingredients in life resembles this basic shape. The x-axis represents some ingredient and the y-axis represents some desired outcome of the ingredient. The trick is to find out where the optimal “middle” lives.

I’m not sure who gave me this advice. Maybe no one. Maybe the curve just reappears in my head at opportune times.

Whenever I struggle with difficult decisions, I think about this curve. Whenever things are going poorly, I think about this curve. Whenever something is going really well, I think about this curve. The bell curve helps me recalibrate where I am and where I need to go.

Take my relationship with money, for example. How much money do I need to make myself happy? Thinking about the bell curve, the x-axis would represent the amount of money I have (increasing from left-to-right) and the y-axis would represent my happiness (increasing from bottom-to-top).

I grew up without a lot of money. My parents made ends meet despite that fact. They put a priority on living in a good school district and putting food on the table each day above all else. My friends at school were all generally wealthier. We couldn’t afford the things most of my schoolmates could. There were no ski trips or summer homes to go to during winter break. I was keenly aware of our limitations with wealth when I was a child. So, my perception of wealth was simple: The more money I could make when I was older, the happier I would be. Period.

How trajectories sometimes appear

But, numerous studies have shown this isn’t the case. Being wealthier doesn’t necessarily make you happier. One study in 2009 suggested the optimal household salary to achieve the most day-to-day happiness is $75,000. Earlier this year, Time magazine reported on the link between lottery winners and future depression.

The relationship between monetary wealth and happiness, then, could probably be represented by a bell curve–or at the very least some shape resembling the curve, with a line that slopes upward as wealth increases toward some optimal middle before it descends steadily downward.

By the way, I don’t think my mental model of wealth and happiness as a child was wrong. I was simply looking at the curve with a locally focused view based on where I personally saw myself at the time.

Sometimes, our perception of how things ultimately will work out is blinded by how things are working out right now

And, this serves as an additional realization the bell curve has given me. Sometimes, I focus too narrowly on whatever part of the curve I happen to be situated upon right now. If I happen to have little money, I might think that obtaining more wealth (or whatever the x-axis represents) without bounds is the key to more happiness (or whatever the y-axis represents). If something’s feeling just right, I might not even recognize that I’ve struck a careful balance of whatever amount of x I need to achieve y. If I have an overabundance of x, I might assume that getting rid of all of it (rather than just pulling back a bit) will help me get to an optimal y. The bell curve reminds me to be cautious about extrapolating my current path toward the optimum.

Let’s get back to the money example. Using this logic, it would seem like there would be a point where I should actually stop trying to make more money. At some point, wealth has negative returns. But, I personally wouldn’t explicitly pass up the opportunity to make more money, even if I felt I had achieved my optimal happiness from it. So what gives? Sounds like a flaw in the system.

But that’s not the only way to interpret the curve. For me, the bell curve helps re-prioritize the ingredients in my life that need the most attention. If I have the exact amount of money I feel makes me happy, I won’t eschew doing something simply because it makes money. But, there will have to be another reason—something else that helps me find the optimal middle for the other bell curves in my life.

For instance, if I happen to be building software that customers are willing to pay to use, then the happiness I squeeze from it might come from things outside of the bottom line. It might be the satisfaction of making someone’s life better through a craft I love or the accomplishment of my team pushing out a new feature that customers are raving about or the recognition of the public…or any number of other things.

In other words, once I’ve reached the optimal middle for something, I don’t necessarily avoid obtaining more of it. But, I know that it won’t give me the returns it once did. If I continued to assume what once was true (I’ll be happier when I have more money), more money would, indeed, make me less happy.

Everyone’s graphs will be different. My optimal middle for money’s impact on happiness will be different from yours. Not only that, but my middle will change over time. Getting married, moving to San Francisco, having my first child — those life events have a big impact on the x-axis. But, the key is that I know the curve always exists. I just need to think about how the scales actually change. How much or how little they actually do is subject to constant reevaluation. I told you it would be fuzzy math at best.

I’ve used money as an example because it’s instantly relatable to all of us. But, there is a bell curve of effectiveness to just about everything. How much water you should drink to be healthy (you can drink too much water). How much time spent on automating tests leads to more bug-free software (the fallacy of full test coverage convinces developers to let their guard down on other kinds of testing). How much capitalistic extremes progress a society’s overall welfare (and, for that matter, any other form of government). I can go on forever. I find the lessons of the bell curve apply to just about everything in my life—big or small.

All ingredients in life have a limit to their effectiveness. Where that limit lies is different for everyone. Everyone’s bell curve is different. Everyone’s place on that curve is also different. But, everyone’s bell curve exists. It’s up to us to draw them out.

Originally published Nov 30, 2016 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Why sports matter to some of us”.