The Debilitating Myth of the “Average Person”

Book review

The End of Average – Unlocking our potential by embracing what makes us different by Todd Rose (New York:  Harper One, 2016)

Rose explodes the myth of the “average person” by describing how the United States Air Force designed cockpits for advanced jet planes which were challenging and dangerous to fly. Airplane designers built cockpits for an average pilot. However, when planes began to crash at alarming rates, investigators quickly concluded pilot error caused by difficulty in operating the plane’s controls which were exactly designed for the average dimensions of a pilot.  To understand why, they studied ten body dimensions of the certified pilots and found not one of the 4063 pilots were average on all dimensions.  Not one!  As a result, airplane manufacturers changed from designing a cockpit for the average pilot to an adjustable cockpit that will accommodate differences in body shape and dimensions which dramatically improved safety.

As illustrated in this example, Rose identifies the need to avoid evaluating people in comparisons to group averages.  With several other exmaples, Rose points out the dangers of evaluating individuals againts an arbitrary overall metric versus a fulsome understanding of detailed strengths and weaknesses.  He postulates four critical implications of focusing on the individual versus the average person.

  • People learn in many different ways. So to judge a person by how fast they learn or how quick they are to perform math problems is not a judge as to their ultimate abilities to achieve and contribute.
  • Rose describes these differences as jaggedness. People have many strengths and weaknesses, hence the jaggedness and why it is inappropriate to put overall labels on people. And importantly, deficiencies may not be permanent and can be overcome.
  • Secondly, traits are not universal for individuals. For example, people are sometimes introverts, sometimes extroverts depending on the situation. The introvert/extrovert response is situational not an innate, universal trait.
  • Finally, everyone’s’ journey through life is different. For example, Rose dropped out of high school and then goes onto teach at Harvard. Each path is unique, and there are no good or bad paths, only individual paths.

The implications of treat people as individuals is profound. The most successful organizations recognize this and substitute individuality for scientific management historically based upon group normative statistics. He cites examples of several highly successful companies utilizing innovative people strategies to avoid averagism and overreliance on scientific management.

In a final chapter, Rose, based upon his educational experience makes a case for wholesale changes in higher education. He asserts three significant changes.

  • Colleges many credentials versus diploma – Freed from the straightjacket of fixed graduation terms, a larger number of credentials can be awarded which are more critical to performing on the job.
  • Competencies versus grades – Grades are averages, and not relevant to job performance. It is more important for a company to understand what a person has mastered than specific grades.
  • Let students determine their educational pathways – Rose states there is no reason why a bachelor’s degree should be four years. It would be better to allow students the freedom to design their learning pathways and durations. They should be allowed to earn competencies in any order within any duration.

Clearly, Rose’s higher education recommendations are radical but clearly should be thoroughly considered in this world of spiraling college costs and increased need for highly skilled employees.

While the concepts in The End of Average are easy to grasp, I recommend reading Rose’s book to re-examine our prejudices and biases. He forces the reader to reconsider what is important about the individual and why arbitrary comparisons to a group average do not matter and may even lead to wrong conclusions. Books that call into question our most unconsious and fundamental beliefs are well worth the investment to read.

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