The End of Average

Summary Written by Ingrid Urgolites
"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

The Big Idea

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

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.

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Insight #2

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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Todd Rose

Todd Rose is the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Laboratory for the Science of the Individual. The Lab’s flagship project is the Individual Mastery Project, also at the Harvard School of Education, a long-term study investigating the development of individual excellence and expertise. He is also the co-founder of The Center for Individual Opportunity, a non-profit organization that promotes the principles of individuality in work, school, and society. His talks have been featured at TedX, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the Harvard Ed ‘8 for 8.’ He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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