The End of Average

"In this book, you will learn that just as there is no such thing as average body size, there is no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, or average character. Nor are there average students or average employees – or average brains, for that matter. Every one of these familiar notions is a figment of a misguided scientific imagination."

- The End of Average, page 11

We live in an age where we continuously measure others and ourselves against averages. In The End of Average, Todd Rose asks, “How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?” He changed his life going from a high school dropout to Harvard Graduate School director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program. He shares with us the principles of the interdisciplinary field of the science of the individual, a new way of thinking that focuses on understanding individuality instead of judging individuals based on averages.

Rose describes a scientific conundrum: to get an accurate result, an individual must complete the same test several times to balance discrepancies. However, we cannot do that with people because they learn which affects the outcome of repetitive testing. Therefore, a shortcut was developed; we decided many identical tests on different individuals would be equivalent to individual testing multiple times. This creates static results or statistics that we can use to evaluate individuals. Accepting this principle as fact, we developed measures that gauge an individual against group statistics.

We believed the average was the ideal and individuality was imperfection and concluded that if someone is superior in one area, it follows they are also excellent in other sectors. He also talks about how we developed types, ranks, and standardization around averages. Generalizations make it easier to place people and teach them basic skills, but they do not develop or identify individual talent. The problem is that no person fits the average, and so the premise of the system of evaluation is wrong.

When evaluating people, we need to realize that statistics are only helpful when evaluating groups of people and a different approach is necessary with individuals. Rose uses dynamic systems, the math of changing nonlinear systems instead of statistics. This lets us recognize relevant changes in the individual instead of creating spurious connections between irrelevant traits of a group. He discusses the three principles of individuality, the jaggedness principle, the context principle, and the pathways principle.

There is a lot to gain by mastering these principles discussed in depth in the book. For this brief summary, I will focus on the mindset we need to cultivate to get started.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Success is not being above average

"We all feel the pressure to strive to rise as far above average as possible. Much of the time, we don’t even think about what, exactly, we’re trying so hard to be above-average at, because the why is so clear: we can only achieve success in the Age of Average if others do not view us as mediocre or – disaster! – as below-average."
- The End of Average, page 35

Mary Poppins had a measuring tape that measured shortcomings of others and showed she was “practically perfect in every way.” Unfortunately, none of us measure up the way she does. We want to be included, rewarded, accepted, and to have possibilities open to us. Therefore, we learn in childhood that success is dependent on being above average, in every way. More importantly, we learn that we should strive for this ideal of perfection.

The first step is recognizing that the mark we are striving for is an imaginary standard that does not describe anyone. We believe that we should conform to standards because it is ingrained in our culture. However, the ideal is an illusion based on the false belief that we should share the same attributes and that we all have the same potential.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Typing and ranking dilute individuality

"Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgment always erases the individuality of the person being judged."
- The End of Average, page 38

When we use and accept a type such as “extrovert,” “micro-manager,” “neurotic type,” “Type-A personality,” or any of the endless descriptions we can attach, we lose a little of ourselves. No one fits any type exactly, partially because we change our behavior to fit our circumstances. Categorizing evaluates a few characteristics measured from many individuals that may not have anything in common with any single person. Believing we should or do match a standardized description is accepting an imaginary ideal that waters down our individuality. It causes us to focus on a few characteristics we have in certain circumstances instead of embracing our whole being.

Ranking in a work environment has the same effect. Successful companies like Microsoft and Google have abandoned old systems that ranked and rated individuals on a few performance characteristics. Instead of looking for specific traits or credentials, some employers have had success looking at the ones emphasized by the employee. The method used for measuring and predicting performance should always focus on the individual.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Make the opportunity fit the person

"But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person, then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity."
- The End of Average, page 187

There are many ways to reach goals and feel fulfilled. The hardest way to achieve a sense of satisfaction is to try to fit others’ standard of perfection so they will recognize we are suitable for the opportunity they can make available to us. Traditionally we need a set of credentials and scores to show we qualify for employment. That puts an individual in the position of determining what standard measurements they can achieve given their circumstance and traits and setting their goals from there.  Although we may not be striving for mediocrity, this is an excellent way to achieve it.  This is working to become a replaceable cog in a machine that can and will run without us. We become disinterested, disengaged, and apathetic about our work.

An alternative, and the way to create a dynamic, productive, and engaged workforce is creating opportunities for the individual based on their talents, interests, and goals. In the past companies have avoided this approach because they believe it is costly. It is possible to succeed both by valuing individuality and by standardizing to replace transient workers efficiently. In today’s corporate world, some progressive companies have chosen to abandon standardization. The results are impressive: Costco, Morning Star, and Zoho are among the superstars who have flourished valuing the individuality of their employees. Walmart has mastered efficiency regarding keeping costs low by standardizing business practices to compensate for an expensive 40 percent turnover rate. The difference is how the companies have chosen to spend their resources.

No matter how many gold stars we have earned or how many times we face rejection, it is easy to feel like we are only faking it or we were judged unfairly. This book validates both of those viewpoints because what we feel is that we do not measure up to an ideal set by an average that does not describe us. It is much more authentic when we evaluate our unique possibilities and measure our progress by our individual strengths and abilities.

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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