I believe in regression to the mean.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how things can go wrong even though you have done everything in your power to make them go right. Then, a couple of days later, things went wrong. For someone who loves planning, who believes that you can reach your aims if you work hard enough, this is a terrible reality.

I find nothing more annoying than people who will tell you how their whole life is ruined by outside influences. People who tell you “I would like to have better grades but I have tried studying and it did not work” and then go back to watching telly (I used to be one of those). People who tell you that they really want to lose weight but it is physically impossible and then they heap three spoons of sugar into one cup of tea (I used to be one of those, too). People who tell you that they can’t get the job they want because that would require “connections” – as if making connections was an arcane art that you are born into or not.

I love the idea of agency – the idea that you shape your own life. I love success stories. I love to think that everyone can become President of the USA – looking at Hollywood blockbusters and the ecstasy that met Barack Obama when he first ran for president, most of us do. Most of us want to believe that if you deserve success, success you will inevitably receive.

Unfortunately, this is a lie. It is a lie in two ways. Firstly, it is entirely possible that you work really hard and yet don’t get what you were working for. This is where people say “it wasn’t meant to be”. Another of those annoying things people say, implying that some cosmic force actively prevents you from getting what you deserve and rather than being mad at it, you should thank the universe for its infinite wisdom. To me, “meant to be” is either a logical fallacy, or what you are actually trying to say is “you never had a chance”. A para-plegic, regardless of how hard he exercises, might never dance for the Bolshoi.

Cal Newport, in his excellent So Good They Cannot Ignore You, might revel in the fact that Richard Feynman became a Nobel-prize winning physicist, despite the fact that he “only” had an IQ of 125 but that should not blind him to the fact that Feynman, in all probability, would never have got there if he had only had an IQ of 75. Most Nobel-prize winning physicists – including Feynman – have an above-average IQ. Most classical dancers are able-bodied. Most professional musicians can hear. This might sound a terribly trite wisdom but it is true and it is bone-shatteringly unfair.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot battle the odds and achieve meaningful victories. It just means that when you work hard, you are not travelling on a path to inevitable success but merely improving probabilities for that success.

Contradicting Einstein’s often quoted quip, Stephen Hawking has suggested that God does play dice with the universe. When you work hard, when you try to take control over your life, you are not taking control over the dice, all you are doing is accumulating larger amounts of winning numbers. This does not mean that a losing number might not still come up.

This is the second way in which the working-hard dictum is a lie. Even if you work really hard and have excellent chances of reaching your aim, it might still not work out. If you believe that there is no intervening deity (or fatalistic force in the universe), then you have to face the fact that the dice can always roll against you. It is always possible that you do not get the thing you feel you deserve, not because “it isn’t meant to be” but because it just isn’t. You can make things going wrong less likely, but mostly, you cannot make it impossible.

After very careful analysis and getting feedback from a hell of a lot of really amazing academics, I can say that if I did something wrong in my dissertation, if there is something I should have done but didn’t, I do not know what it is. I handed in something that I believed at the time – and still believe to be – absolutely deserving of a very good result. I have many theories about why I did not get the result my supervisor and I felt I deserved, but ultimately, it does not matter because not one of them can change what I wrote or change the way I do things in the future. For the first time in my life something went wrong and I cannot say what I should have done differently. For someone who wants so desperately to believe in agency, this is terrible. I would love nothing more than to think that I made a mistake. I want to blame myself but I just don’t see how. I would much rather beat myself up than admit to the fact that my agency is limited, that sometimes shit happens and there is nothing you can do about it. After mulling it over for weeks and weeks, I must simply admit that the dice were cast and my number did not come up. Easy as that.

At first this randomness made me quite unhappy but then I realized that while you might sometimes not get what you worked hard and well for and therefore feel you deserve, you might sometimes get what you do not deserve. If the dice can be cast undeservedly in your disfavour, they can also be cast undeservedly in your favour.

Shortly after handing in my dissertation, I decided that it was time to try my hand at getting published in an academic journal. More specifically, I thought that since rejections are inevitable – especially when you haven’t really found your feet, yet – it would be a good time to get the feeling of being rejected out of the way before it really mattered. I was thinking about long term academic happiness and realized that one of the anxieties that appears to be prevalent among young academics is the sensation that they really should get something published but dare not send their work out for fear of rejection. So, I edited an essay I had written during my time at Cambridge and sent it to a thematically appropriate journal. It’s a good essay (it got me in to Oxford) but it’s quite old and I felt like I would not be hurt when it got turned down. I thought it was an easy way of getting used to the rejection that will inevitably happen when you repeatedly try to get things published. I was trying to trick the dice by getting rejected for something that did not have a good chance to begin with so that when something that I felt deserved to be published got turned down, I would already have immunised myself against the misery.

I know it’s an odd plan but when you find rejection and failure as unbearably painful as I do, you come up with these things.

Here’s the funny thing: It didn’t work. The essay did not get rejected. Now, undeservedly if one goes by effort or strength of desire, I will have my first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal.

I don’t mean to suggest some kind of cosmic justice (there are people who get cancer and then their dog dies; there are real life Jobs, who suffer silently and never receive their just deserts) but merely regression to the mean, which, as anyone who’s ever played a board game knows, is not progression to the nice. In practice this means that if your chances are good and you roll the dice really, really often, your numbers become incredibly likely to come up (this may be connected to Peter Sims Little Bets, which I really need to read). This might not be as inspiring as the usual “you can make your dreams come true” shtick but it has the benefit of being more evidently true and sustainable. It also helps you maintain a world where working hard is beneficial, even though in any given instance, your effort might not reap the expected result.

So what did these past roller-coaster weeks teach me?

1) Shit happens.

2) When shit happens, look at it, analyze it, ask yourself what you should have done differently but if you do not find an answer, accept it and move on.

3) Awesome happens. Sometimes for very little reason.

4) If you let the dice be cast, the result might be in your favour or in your disfavour. If you avoid having the dice cast, the result will inevitably be in your disfavour. So you better place as many bets as you possibly can.

In my case this means that rather than working on a mythical, unrejectable paper (no such thing!), I will go through the things I have, edit the papers that I deem good enough and send them out. Sure, I will continue to make my work as good as possible (thereby improving my chances) but at the same time, I will throw the dice as often as possible, knowing that the beauty of a random universe is that sometimes my number will have to come up.

One more thing I have learnt, and this sounds entirely to Zen for me to actually admit, is that I cannot sustain unhappiness in the woods. So this is where I have been doing some happy writing/berry picking lately.



About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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18 Responses to I believe in regression to the mean.

  1. writtenbyafloridian says:

    What a lovely place. It reminds me of Faulkner for some reason.

    Oh, and congratulations.



    • oxforddphile says:

      Thanks! And yes the place is amazing. I should read some Faulkner.


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        Yes, you should. Have you never read Faulkner? Surely (don’t call me, Shirley) you have?


      • oxforddphile says:

        I am woefully uneducated in everything American. I read bits of Faulkner but I never actually got around to reading Faulkner properly. What should I start with?


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        The Sound and the Fury of course. Seriously though, you should, but my favorites are A Fable, The Reivers, and Absalom, Absalom!

        Faulkner, in my opinion, is the best way to learn about the American South.



  2. writtenbyafloridian says:

    I elected to give this piece a re-read. And I am glad I did because, while I disagree with you on some rather subsidiary points, I find that the overall character of this piece rings very true to me. It has a ‘be obscure clearly’ quality about it; you know, it has a hummm…..je ne sais quoi feel about it, as do most of your pieces that I’ve read so far.

    Anyways, that’s quite enough analysis for one day. Btw, just out of curiosity: what was your thesis topic?



    • oxforddphile says:

      thanks! my thesis topic was the relationship between theodicy and literature. Contradicting a recent trend to view literature as inherently antitheodicean, I argued that literature which feigns mimesis while being the result of authorial creation cannot truly resist theodicy.

      out of curiosity, what points do you disagree with?


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        That is a great topic! Do you think your topic ruffled their feathers a little too much though?

        I just disagree that the existence of a deity means one must always get one’s way.(One must always get ones way is a very strange phrase, right?) I also disagree that shit just happens. Of course, shit happens, but it happens for some reason, whether ill or not.

        Off-topic, have you ever read Tolstoy’s Resurrection?



  3. oxforddphile says:

    I have not read the resurrection yet but it’s on the list (the list is oh so long and getting longer every day). I do not think that the existence of a deity means one must always get one’s way (very odd). I just believe that some kind of justice would be at play – one would, in some way, get what one deserves. Though that does not mean that I see the fact that I did not get a distinction as prove that God does not exist – that would be silly and narcisistic in the extreme. Rather I see no justice in the world, therefore I believe there is no justice creating force at work, therefore it would be silly to believe that my grading should be just. Given my believes, I should not be surprised when things are not just, which does not mean that I don’t find it difficult to accept. The fact that God does not exist in my personal experience of the universe is an underlying creed in my interaction and interpretation of it. If I believed he existed, everything would be different. My perspective on absolutely everything – from world peace, to university grades, to toilet paper and shoe sizes would change. The non-existence of God is simply the premise on which my universe rests.

    As far as feather ruffling is concerned, I am entirely uncertain. The examiners did not react to my underlying argument at all, they do not even appear to have noticed it.

    Also, I will now forbid myself from communicating with you for 24 hours, or I will never finish editing my paper.


    • writtenbyafloridian says:

      If you are a liberal, then Resurrection will disabuse you of that notion. In my mind, its underlying theme is the futility of liberalism.

      “The non-existence of God is simply the premise on which my universe rests.”

      I like this, but I find that you are still referring to God to deny God. Therefore, in a Tillichian sense, you are still concerned or at least acknowledging the Ground of existence. That is all that is required within my view.

      In an attempt to be less amorphous, you have structured your life around an entity or concept or whatever, that may exist or not exist, but in this way, you have allowed the idea of the Ground of existence, whether in acceptance or denial, to form the essence of your life.



      • oxforddphile says:

        Whether I am liberal, I know not. It depends very much on what your definition of liberal is.

        I would never deny that I am concerned with God. I am a deeply religious atheist. In another time, I would probably have been a nun – and gladly. (I do spend my days reading and writing about theodicy, after all!) Do I want God to exist? Yes, absolutely. Do I think God exists? Probably not. Given the evidence of my senses, do I think I should believe in God? Absolutely not.

        I think God, as the big meaning-maker, is almost a logical necessity within the human mind. Without God, existence becomes meaningless. For this reason New Atheists have an overextended, religious belief in science. Romantics believe in the unity of nature or the all-encompassing power of love. I, always the true Victorian, believe in intellectual honesty, as if it mattered whether I reject God or not. But I know that all of this is merely an accident of an overextended consciousness, clinging to meaning with power and desperation.


  4. writtenbyafloridian says:

    Well, the primary idea, the one that is most constant in liberal thought, is this idea that one must be entirely well-intentioned. One must give and have good sense and so forth. Of course, these are noble traits, but they are ultimately useless in transforming society. No matter how well-intentioned one is or how many bottles of hand sanitizer or condoms one hands out, those activities, while honorable, are not going to provide solutions to the problems liberals sympathize with. They are ultimately useless in halting the horrible acts themselves and they are incapable of transforming the nature of society away from a such-and-such horrible act. The futility of liberalism is one of the main reasons I am a Marxist.

    Of course, by now, you know which points I disagree with lol. But, as always, it was very well said.



    • oxforddphile says:

      oh, I think I might be a liberal… though not reallly. Perhaps a Marxist, only in the sense Marx was (and not all of the time). Most of all I am a Gene Roddenberryist.

      There is a saying in Germany that if you are 17 and you’re not a communist, you have no heart and if you’re 30 and you’re still a communist, you have no brain. I am 25 and burdened with a bit of both.

      The truth is that I have no political orientation because of the chasm between ideal and reality and the mass of variables. I was born in a communist state and I know it itsn’t the hell it is made out to be but at the same time I know that it has very little to do with the ideas Marx (&Engels) actually had. At the same time, the capitalism I live in has very little to do with the idea of capitalism.

      Politics are dirty; they are flawed translations from an obscure language. In reality, I know that for me living in a capitalist state is more enjoyable than living in a communist one but that does not reflect on the value of the theories but only on the translation.

      I also believe that capitalism is horrible; that we are destroying each other and our planet; that the coffee I am drinking is brewed with the blood of Africa; that the car I drive is killing the forest I love.

      I also know that there is very little I can do about this. I know that when I buy fair trade and organic, I am not actually making a difference but I also know that if I had the chance to make a difference, I would not know which difference I should be making. So I buy fair when I can and work in a homeless shelter, not because I believe that I am solving the problems of the world but because I believe that the problems of the world are – and always were – beyond human solution. Instead of solutions I opt for little kindnesses. I believe that liberalism is futile. I believe that by and large there are no solutions to the problems I sympathize with that whenever we “solve” a problem we only shift it to another – often bigger – problem, not because we are evil but because we are fundamentally unable to foresee the consequences of our actions. I believe that the road to today was paved with the best of intentions.

      Even worse, I know that even my attempts at kindness often have the opposite effect. If I am liberal, then you misunderstand the liberal motivation. I do not engage in these little “kindnesses” because I believe they make a real difference but because they make me feel better. From a utilitarian perspective they are good because they reliably improve the only happiness I can reliably improve. My own.


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        Haha, yes, very much so! Of course, you are right, I think, that one must be a historical materialist in order to be a Marxist. In fact, I don’t think I could interpret Marx in any way but in the light of historical materialism. However, I am not a materialist, in all facets of existence, because materialism obligates one to assume a number of things without philosophical justification. It is a worldview littered with problems and contradictions. Also, even if one believed the positive arguments for something beyond nature were false, that would not entail, that, therefore, there is nothing beyond the material.

        Marx’s idea regarding historical materialism was not one of simple categorization. It was far lenghtier and subtler than most realize. I think I remember him saying in The Holy Family, maybe, or German Ideology that “The materialist doctrine concerning the change of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must be himself educated. Hence, this doctrine must divide society into two parts–one of which towers above.” Most materialists lose sight of this historical dimension and do not value the active role played by human beings in changing and developing their own circumstances. Also, I don’t know many materialists that would take this statement lying down: “consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness.” Of course, the main thesis of Marx’s ideas, the one all Marxists must accept, is that the socio-economic process is the one that is most basic to human society and that other activities–religious, political, legal–are secondary and derivative. Although Marx was no simple economic determinist. Marx’s theory of historical materialism is best regarded, in my mind, as intended to supply a series of flexible structural concepts through which to interpret the development of past and present societies. And this I accept unreservedly.

        And I am a Joss Whedonist.

        Capitalism cannot work and that was what Marx understood all to well. Because capitalism will always tend towards unrelegated and unfettered capitalism. And because ‘true’ capitalism, as they call it, has no self-imposed limits it commodifies everything–human beings become commodities; the natural world becomes a commodity. And, then, it exploits everything until destruction or collapse. The thing to understand is that when a small portion of people control all property or wealth they, then, set the terms of employment for everyone else. They determine the wages, benefits, and so forth. And the reason the oligarchs, in certain countries, are required to pay a certain amount or provide certain things is the result of socialistic ideas being seen as commonsensical.

        We must revolutionize the system itself. And this is precisely what liberals never want to do. But I do. I think socialism is the key–surprise, surprise. What we can’t do is say the task is too Augean.



    • oxforddphile says:

      and another thing: how on earth can you be a marxist and not a materialist? Man of Paradoxes, indeed.


  5. Wow! You’re such a eloquent and intelligent writer that I feel slightly embarrassed by my own scribblings.

    I am also a planner. So much so that when my plans were upset during my senior year of undergrad studies I went through a severe depression. Yet, I learned quite a bit about myself and how I understand the world. As an atheist, I have trouble with phrases like, “It wasn’t meant to be”. It feels disingenuous. Like you said, shit happens. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure I believe in randomness or chance. To me it seems that a series of events occur which led to a result. It looks like randomness, but is it really? There is no God, there is no dice, there is no ultimate plan. I’ve found much more comfort in this than I ever experienced as a Christian believing in God’s ultimate plan for me.

    When I worked with teens, I was very reluctant to tell them,”If you can believe it, you can achieve it.” or “Anything is possible if you try hard enough.” Because it just isn’t (and these slogans sound really stupid to teen ears). I can’t lie to these young students who have so much hope in the future and dream so big. Not that you shouldn’t work very hard. You should. But with the awareness that the possibly of failure is real. I would much rather tell teens, “Yes, you will fail at something. But you will learn so much more from failure. Appreciate that if you can.”

    Side note: In my doctoral program, we are expected to publish in academic journals as doctoral students. I have three articles lined up right now. Submitting a publishable paper is one of the requirements for completing our dissertation. Is it different at Oxford? It sounds like it.


    • oxforddphile says:

      sorry it took me so long to reply, I am on a workation and only access the interwebs intermittently. I know the failed-plan depression all too well and am still working out a way of planning, which allows for failure as part of a process. Usually I tell myself that the point is to learn how to plan well rather than to reach an actual aim. When I was writing my undergrad thesis, I told myself that all I was doing was trying to find the best way to write an undergrad thesis and writing a thesis was only a contingent byproduct. When a day did not work out as planned, I would be almost glad to have gained information about things not going according to plan. I felt that those days made the biggest improvement to my ability to write accademically.

      What you say about randomness is interesitng because I see it the other way around. When I look at my life so far, I am tempted to see a great plan. I am now (basically) where I always wanted to be, doing what I always wanted to do. When I edit my CV for an application, I am always amazed how seemlessly my life leads to where I am right now, one step logically following another, as if this was the only possible path.

      Only when I focus on one of these steps do I realize that the narrative my CV tells is semi-fictional. I have to force myself to remember that between every succesful step was a misstep, something that did not go according to plan. Not one of these things was necessary. Every application, test, challenge might have gone wrong. I know that because so many did. But in the CV (and the narrative we tell ourselves) these failures vanish in the background – after all the succesful application has a tangible result, which influences your life, the failure hurts for a while but does not actually affect day to day reality.

      To return to the gambling metaphor: It looks like every time I played, I won. But what really happened is, I placed a coin on a number, the number did not come up. So I cried a bit. Worked hard enough to have two coins, placed them. They didn’t come up. So I screamed profanities at the universe, worked hard to earn another couple of coins, placed them. Low and behold, they came up. I won. I placed them again and didn’t win. I worked, placed coins and won! Then I lost again. etc. etc.

      Every time I won, I might as well have lost. Every time I lost, I might have won. The point is, I played so often, that I accumulated so many winnings that from the outside it looks like I was lucky, when all I was was repeatedly random.

      Looking at my CV, all you can tell is that I studied in Heidelberg, Cambridge and Oxford. What you cannot tell is how many times I applied. I feel it is important we commemorate our failures because they remind us of the importance of playing, of trying, over and over again, against all odds. To try and improve our odds, even if others tell us, the chances are non-existant. I think this is what I would tell hopefull adolescents. “You have no chance, so try as hard as you can”. And also, ask yourself if you really want that thing. If you want it so much that you can take every single failure that is coming your way, that you can take the work and sweat and pain, even if it leads nowhere. Many amazing things are not worth the pain (I once wanted to be a musical actress but gave that up after a horrible audition because I felt I could not take the rejection. I was right. I am happy.)

      side note: nope, the only thing we have to publish is our thesis at the end. Also we don’t have to do teaching. You’re supposed to only take three years for the entire degree and get real world qualifications after or on your own time (this is why doing your doctorate in Oxford isn’t necessarily a good idea if you want to find a job in the US).


  6. Pingback: Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done | Oxford Dphile

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