Finding Five-Sigma Talent November 26, 2008Posted by federalist in Human Markets.
The Normal distribution has proven to be a very good model for the distribution of virtually every human characteristic and ability across populations. Most people cluster into a small range of values around the average, but there are a few outliers with exceptional abilities and disabilities. You can’t always predict where those extremes will appear. But if a characteristic is in fact normally distributed then you can predict, for example, that if 70% (one standard deviation, or “sigma”) of adult men are within 3″ of the average height of 5’9″, then 1 man in a billion will grow to a height of 7 feet.
Suppose you want to find the five-sigma human specimens for some physical or mental feat. With a global population exceeding six billion we’re essentially talking about finding the single most talented adult in the world. A sports management company made an interesting play for this, running a contest in India (population: 1.1BB+) to find a major-league caliber baseball pitcher. The structure of the contest may not have been ideal, but the $1MM prize and publicity were plausible incentives. (In the end, two contestants signed contracts with a professional baseball team in the U.S.)
Searching for five-sigma talent soon leads us back to the nature vs. nurture debate: How important are innate abilities? Is it easier to build a five-sigma athlete or scholar if you start with a person who was born with five-sigma physical or mental traits? Perhaps transformational traits like “trainability” and “perseverance” are separate faculties that have to be included in the equation with raw talents. Or perhaps innate ability can never contribute more than a certain fraction of a learned skill, which could mean that trained two-sigma performers are practically as good as trained five-sigma specimens.
These are not purely academic questions: Anyone who funds or profits from performers should want to know the answers.