“We are addicted to average because it promises to simplify and quantify something complicated and unquantifiable: human potential.”
From the time we are teenagers, we want to be normal. Yet none of us want to be average.
We race through life measuring anything measurable: developmental markers, standardized tests, SAT scores, employment evaluation and health risk tests. And, let us not forget the pain of ready-made clothing that never fits quite right.
Does life have to be that way? Do we have to be guided by the group rule from first scream to last breath? Absolutely not, exclaims Todd Rose in a readable introduction to what has been called the new science of the individual. Professor Rose is co-founder and president of the Center for Individual Opportunity and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His groundbreaking new book, The End of Average, is set to be a key text within the Science of the Individual, a multi-disciplinary field drawing upon recent scientific and mathematical findings to demonstrate that it is simply not possible to draw meaningful conclusions about human beings using statistical averages.
“For more than a century, this average-size-fits-all model has ignored our individuality and failed to recognize talent,” he says. “The implications of abandoning averages are far-reaching, for children within the educational system, for employees and employers, and for our personal relationships.”
Average doesn’t exist for Todd Rose.
Rose explains his hypothesis with the real-life story of the United States Air Force, which in the 1950s began investigating why pilots were struggling to control their planes. It turned out not to be pilot error or poor training, but the way in which cockpits were designed — around the body shape of the “average” pilot of the 1920s.
The results were staggering: A grand total of zero pilots fit this average size profile on all 10 counts. Even when just three dimensions were used, only 3.5 per cent of the pilots were “average.” Instead, most had what Rose calls a “jagged profile,” varying greatly on all dimensions.
“By designing the cockpit for the average man, they were designing jets for nobody,” explains Rose. The Air Force responded by abandoning the idea of “designing-to-average” physical stature, demanding that manufacturers instead design “to the edges” – i.e. adjustable to extremes of size, fitting both the tallest or the shortest, and those with wide or narrow chests. This led to innovations we now take for granted, such as adjustable seats.
To Rose’s mind, averages have failed us spectacularly – most spectacularly in our educational institutions. “We might not all need to fit into a cockpit, but we have had to fit into a classroom,” he says. And we have yet to see the equivalent of adjustable seating within education.
If we are not average, then who are we?
Dr. Rose explains that all human characteristics are multidimensional, not only in specifics but also in time and context. Reducing massive data to a single, simple variable (a “fast” thinker, a “quiet” teenager) results in a set of flawed conclusions. Big Data has landed us in the age of average but really massive data. Observing thousands of variables in a single human being over time will yield a better understanding than do group norms.
While Rose advocates the reform of many institutions, he’s mostly intrigued by changing how we see ourselves and the people we care about. “The tyranny of the average means that we allow ourselves to be stereotyped, striving to fit someone else’s idea of who we should be,” he says. “When we stop comparing ourselves to a non-existent ‘average’, the gates just open.”