Reviewed by Christopher Richards
The End of Average by Todd Rose is about a widespread institutional perception of how individuality doesn’t matter, and why it should. Mr. Rose’s book could have been called, How We Came to Have Screwed-up Ideas, and What to Do About Them.
Instead of building systems to fit the individual, organizations still try to fit people into systems. In the industrial revolution this made sense because uneducated farmworkers were needed for routine factory work. But today we have more functional and exciting options.
What made sense to the father of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor, now needs a rethink. Taylor was against innovation by workers. In his opinion, an employee’s job was to obey. Today, employers are crying out for people who can innovate. Because of institutional one-dimensional thinking, jobs go unfilled while able people aren’t considered for employment. Most organizations are what Mr. Rose disparagingly calls “averagarian.”
How we became average
Our culture is built around averageness, an idea first introduced in the early nineteenth century by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer. Quetelet was trying to measure planetary speed. He came up with the then novel idea to find the average of variable astronomical observations in the belief that the result would be accurate. Astronomers thought the average of all the data points was the correct speed: deviation was error. The idea took hold. Average became sought-after perfection.
Quetelet analyzed chest circumferences of 5,738 Scottish soldiers in his search for the average man. In the 1940s, researchers gathered data on ten anatomical dimensions of young men in the hope of finding the best cockpit design and then recruit pilots to fit in them.
At the same time the search was on to find female perfection. Dr. Robert L Dickinson, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Brooklyn Hospital, was known as the “Rodin of Obstetrics.” Dr. Dickinson and his collaborators took physical measurements of 15,000 young adult women and created Norma, a sculpture that can be seen today in the Cleveland Health Museum.
The trouble was that there were almost no pilots or young women who actually matched the (average) ideal. There was too much individual variation. Broad conclusions say almost nothing about individual experience and capacities.
Mr. Rose cites how Sir Francis Galton agreed with Quetelet that the average was the basis of scientific understanding of people. Galton didn’t see average as perfection. He saw average as mediocre. For him deviation from the average wasn’t error but rank.
Ranking is a prime attribute of one-dimensional thinking. It’s a perspective that permeates just about every aspect of life today: from medical dosages designed for the average patient, to ranking “likes” on Facebook.
For Galton people were essentially eminent, mediocre or imbecilic. He divided these three categories further. And here’s where it gets whacky. According to Galton, if you’re mediocre, then you’re mediocre in every aspect of life. If you’re eminent, you are superior in every way. Sir Francis Galton was an upper-class chap living at the height of the British Empire. Could this have been self-serving stuff?
Today, Galton’s thinking is no stranger to us. If Tiger Woods is a superior golfer then—according to popular opinion—he “should” be better in every other way. If you have excellent academic credentials you’ll be a better employee, perform well in anything you choose, live a happy life, and be admired by the less fortunate. We know this isn’t true. Yet it’s a widespread cultural blind spot.
Making it human
Stories make this book hard to put down. They’re well researched, and range from business to the military. But most compelling are those stories the author tells of his own struggle. When Mr. Rose was 18 he dropped out of high school with a D-minus average, and scratched a living at menial jobs. Today, he is director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard.
In high school he played the class clown so he wouldn’t be harassed by a group of boys. When he went to college, he purposely signed up for more classes than he intended to take. He wanted to avoid his old high school classmates. If they were in a class, he would drop it. His contextual criterion was adaptive, personal, and pragmatic. He wanted distraction-free study.
In another instance, he tells of studying for the Graduate Record Examination, a requirement for science programs. He does well on verbal and math, but not “so-called” analytical reasoning. His father points out to him that he has poor working memory and that he should write down the problem. Awareness of our limitations opens possibilities for functionalpersonal adaptation.
The End of Average is organized into three principles: jaggedness, context, and pathway.
Over-simplifying leaves out necessary complexity. Average is one smooth number derived from varying (jagged) data points. Jaggedness restores accuracy as an individual signature. One graphic in the book shows a tall thin man and a short stout man. Both might weigh the same, but that’s about all you can say. Simplicity is the enemy of accuracy.
Each individual is better adapted to some things and not to others. A person may be a nurturing mother, poor at economics, and a proficient computer programmer. The data points are a person’s individual jagged signature. And this has profound implications for business. Employee-hiring methods are fundamentally flawed.
Relying on past achievements in college, grade point averages, and resumes come at a great cost to employers. Instead, Mr. Rose suggests focusing on what the company wants done. He goes on to show how innovative companies are finding loyal and enthusiastic talent where averagariancompanies wouldn’t consider looking.
Trait theorists believe we’re either introvert or extrovert. But humans aren’t fixed entities. Nor are we disembodied abstractions. We’re influenced by situations we find ourselves in: context. Moreover, personalities aren’t consistent. What one person finds exciting, another finds anxiety provoking. Personal experience and behavior are linked to situation. The same individual is going to respond differently at an IRS audit than on the dance floor.
Personality typing such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Enneagram don’t take situation variability into account. This might seem obvious. But as a culture we are still influenced by Galton’s fixed and simplistic categories, smart people and not-so-smart people, successful and not-so-successful.
Mr. Rose’s third principle is pathway. His own path wasn’t linear. While some occupations demand a rigid pathway, not all do. Not everyone who passes a bar examination goes through law school. You “just” need to pass the examination.
And then there is the issue of pace. One-dimensional thinkers see only one right path and only one right speed. No matter what undergraduate degree you take, you have to take at least four years to achieve it. Success means clocking seat time and not failing “required” courses. An averagarian mindset limits individual potential.
Mr. Rose advocates, not for diplomas, but short-term credentials and the ability to stack them. Some employers agree with him. An increasing number of innovative companies are throwing away the resume to make room for more functional hiring decisions. These are not based on average scores, but on contextual fit, individual interest, and capabilities.
Technology can now manage complexity the individual approach demands. And not just in hiring. Technology-enhanced individualistic medicine is still in its infancy, but it’s growing. And on the education front, alternatives to the rigidity of alma mater (nurturing mother) are becoming a reality. There’s explosive growth in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where learning is flexible and often free.
Institutions, educators, and employers are missing something hidden in plain sight: the complex individual. Only when employers change hiring practices and look beyond diplomas and past employment will they discover they’ve been looking for talent in the wrong places. First employers need to change their thinking—no small task. But reading The End of Average by Todd Rose is a good start.
Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with this book or its author.