At many points in our lives we are graded against the average1. In fact, the entire process of school is you being graded against the average. But the truth is that the middle of all the variance that's being measure is a big hole that no one fits in any way resembling perfection.
The outcome of this is that we come to see average as synonymous with normal2. This is a faulty belief that was explored more in Late Bloomers and Range with the conclusion being, we're individuals and we shouldn't worry much about hitting every mark on the expected curve. You're not a failure simply because you are accomplishing things later than others.
This whole topic of average is what The End of Average by Todd Rose is here to help us through. The purpose of the book is to show us how faulty the average assumption is, and where it came from to dominate outlives.
This quest for average as ideal is a direct result of Taylorism3, where each individual was reduced to what they should be able to produce. In fact the rise of Taylorism also brought the rise of managers, because before Taylor you wouldn't hire someone to simply watch others because they couldn't do the job and produced no work to sell to others.
Then the system of types and ranks and average let managers off the hook of dealing with employees. They simply stick to ranks and formula's and get to keep their job while ignoring the individuality of their workforce4. Later on educational reform brought the same system to schools. If you're behind the curve in education be ready to get labelled as slow and then to fight your way out of that label for the rest of your life. We covered the error of this thinking in Unschooled and Late Bloomers.
Ultimately the issue with aiming for average when you're dealing with people is that you fall prey to the ergodic switch. This is the idea that you can gain insight into individuals by ignoring their individuality and instead by focusing on their conformity to the "average"5. When you think about it, it seems obvious that this is faulty, yet we still stick with the system of average as if it was the last best system to use, instead of one that has conferred some benefits but is not the last option6.
There are three principles that Rose uses to show that sticking to average is an idea that won't work long-term.
The Jaggedness Principle
First is the Jaggedness Principle, which says that we can't apply one-dimensional thinking to complex jagged things7. Just because you're average in height doesn't mean you're average in weight, or hip measurement, or strength.
Even in areas that may seem similar like cardiovascular fitness we're jagged. Where I am a cyclist that can keep up or outpace many locals, I fall behind these same people in our running groups. My fitness is jagged, as is so many other things about me.
By taking time to recognize where people are jagged we can help people achieve better match fit in their lives8.
The Context Principle
The second principle is deals with the context you're in and your performance9. Where my daughter performs well in math at school, she hated it and constantly fought doing any math when we homeschooled her. Now she's a top math student, because her context switched10.
The Pathways Principle
Finally, the Pathways Principle starts with two assumptions.
Rose uses a study where students were given flexibility in their learning. This allowed them to go fast where they understood the concepts and take it slow when they needed more time. At the end of the study almost every student had achieved excellence across the board11. When they weren't rushed because they were behind "average" they all turned into great students12.
Ultimately, we all presume that there is one clear well-blazed trail we can walk along to accomplish our goals. We purchase books and courses to find this pathway, while ignoring our own jaggedness13. Instead we should adopt a mindset like we saw in Range where we look for ideas that fit with us and use those as we forge our own unique pathway to whatever we become.
While it's easy to stick with the existing systems because we're afraid of change14 Rose finishes by calling us to embrace individuality. For businesses, don't simply look at your staff as a mass of average people, look towards their jaggedness to find something that suits them. Embracing the individual and teaching managers to get away from spreadsheets so that they know their workforce is what Leaders Eat Last is all about.
For schools, Rose advises that we look towards a competence based system. Once a student demonstrates competence in a field, they move onto the next section. That could mean someone is moving fast in math, and taking more time with their handwriting because it needs more attention. This would also mean we do away with formally numbered grades and grade progressions.
While I found The End of Average interesting, I don't think it's a book I'm going to recommend to many readers unless they want an overview of the topic. If they want some more depth then many of the other books I've linked to above give better in depth assessments of how to stop viewing average as normal. They also give some more in depth and specific ideas around how to break out of the curse of average.
But, if you're looking for an overview this is this is a great book for that.