2017-03-09 / Columns

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Think Outside, No Box Needed: Advice for Growing Your Business
By Jim Plouffe

Ask anyone you know if they think they are better than average on almost any subject they feel proficient or knowledgeable in, and you will get a resounding “yes.” Psychologists have proven that average people think they aren’t average, and they officially call it “The Lake Wobegon Effect,” named after the made-up town in central Minnesota that is the location of Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show. The show’s slogan is “Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” It sounds like all of the towns in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, doesn’t it?

After hearing the slogan, you can understand why psychologists named the illusion of thinking that we are superior to those around us The Lake Wobegon Effect. In Harry Beckwith’s book, “Selling The Invisible,” which was published 20 years ago (and I highly recommend reading it), he wrote about unnamed researchers who asked students to rate their ability to get along with others. The outcome was surprising and impossible; 60% of the students said they were in the top 10% of students in their ability to get along with others. Of course, this is mathematically impossible, but that doesn’t stop us, or them, from believing we are better than we are.

There are some other studies that seem to indicate that this “better than-average thinking” is more prevalent in societies where people have more individual freedoms, like we have.

Do you overestimate your abilities and underestimate the abilities of those around you? Does your business suffer from The Lake Wobegon Effect? Is your service stronger? Are your employees better than your competitors? Are all of your products above average?

I think the worst thing about The Lake Wobegon Effect is that we underestimate the abilities of those around us compared to ourselves. It keeps us from delegating work. It allows us to discount ideas when we should examine them closer. Simple solutions may be completely overlooked if we think we are the only one smart enough to understand and solve the issue or challenge at hand.

Being aware of and admitting that The Lake Wobegon Effect exists is the first step to being able to use it to your advantage. Will Rogers used to end his presentations with, “Honestly, folks, I never met a man I didn’t like,” but I think what he was really saying was that he had never met anyone that he couldn’t learn something from. Everyone is an expert on something. Everyone has had different experiences, and because of that we all have a unique perspective that we can contribute in most situations.

I get up every morning and go to school. I know most of you get up and go to work, but I see work as nothing more than school. The fun thing about seeing work as school is that it allows your brain to subconsciously understand that there is something to be learned today. That prepares you to be on the lookout for wisdom and better ways of doing things. Once you are working, you never know exactly what class you will be taking, how many classes you will have to attend, or how long or short each class is going to be. You just have to observe that you are in class. Sure, you have some ideas of what the general curriculum will be each day, but you can never be sure if you are going to take the same class several times or just once. It shouldn’t be of any surprise to you that you have to repeat classes over and over again until you learn the lesson.

When I first get to school each day, because of the work that I do, I often don’t know when the first class will start. I do know that class will start, and could start at any moment. Maybe your job or work is a little like that, too, but even if it isn’t, you never want to allow yourself to become a victim of The Lake Wobegon Effect.

Plato is said to have quoted Socrates as saying, “I am better off than he [any man] is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.” I believe he was talking about The Lake Wobegon Effect. How you know, use it to your advantage.

Jim helps company owners focus on building more business, making more money, and avoiding costly mistakes. Contact him at jim@ThinkOutsideNoBoxNeeded.com.

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