Advice is often an average that hides the distribution

Mickey Mellen
2 min readSep 29

I love seeking advice from others. In almost any area of my life there are people that know far more than I do, and learning from them is an amazing thing.

Advice is tricky, though, as it usually defaults to the average response for any given situation and ignores the distribution. In the great conversation between David Senra, David Rosenthal, and Ben Gilbert, this came up and their insights were fascinating. Check out the full episode for more, but the general argument was that advice often points to the average, but knowing the distribution can be very important.

As I shared a few weeks ago, what is the average of a left-hander and a right-hander? The average is right in the middle, but the distribution is pushed way to the edges (just 1% of people are ambidextrous).

Or look at how many books the average American reads each year. The average (mean) is 12 books a year, but the median is only four, which means there is a really strange distribution. You have 28% of Americans that read zero, a bunch in the single digits, and then outliers that read dozens or hundreds a year. If you asked me “ how many books should I be reading? “, I’d have no way of giving you a solid number. My general answer is often “one book every week or two”, but the right answer could be way higher or lower than that.

Tight distributions

For other questions, the distribution is much tighter. If you were to ask me “ when should I get my child a cell phone?”, the answer likely falls in a tight window (generally around 12 to 13 years old). It certainly can vary from that in either direction, for good reasons, but the vast majority are right in that range. By age 13–14, 91% of teens have a phone ( via Pew).

Averages can be misleading, sometimes by chance and sometimes by malice, so always take them with a grain of salt. If you get advice, it’s likely focused around an average, so take some time to see what that really means.

Originally published at on September 29, 2023.

Mickey Mellen

I’m a cofounder of @GreenMellen, and I’m into WordPress, blogging and seo. Love my two girls, gadgets, Google Earth, and I try to run when I can.