The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness
Reviewed by Chris Wendel
In a nutshell:
Most standards used to measure success are based on how we stack up against the average. Researcher and author Todd Rose explains why this is wrong and suggests what we can do about it.
Who’s it for: “The End of Average” is geared toward general audiences. Its premise and recommendations are especially useful for parents, educators and businesses trying to attract talent.
Author’s quote: “Our modern conception of the average person is not a mathematical truth but a human invention, created a century and a half ago by two European scientists to solve the social problems of their era.”
The idea of being average is something most of us avoid. Yet we measure success throughout our lives with the comparisons to average standards that permeate our world. “The End of Average” written by Todd Rose contends that measuring ourselves against average is flawed and obsolete.
In the 1940s the U.S. Air Force used airplanes with a cockpit designed for the body dimensions of an “average” pilot. The problem was that for 4,063 pilots, none of the pilots were in the average range of the 10 body measurements used for the design. After multiple accidents the Air Force required adjustable cockpits for its pilots and the accident rate dropped significantly.
“The End of Average” traces how the concept of standardizing the group average started. In the late 19th Century, Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet erred when trying to conform his statistical expertise in astronomy to explain nuances of human behavior with his theory of an “average man,” seeking a universal standard for which performance and achievement could be measured. Influenced by Quetelet, American engineer Frederick W. Taylor’s one-size-fits-all “Scientific Management” approach grew in popularity during America’s Industrial Revolution. Although the standardization models of Quetelet and Taylor may have worked during their eras, Rose explains that types, ranks and standards based on average were incorrect.
One flaw is that standards based on averages create generalizations for placing people rather than developing talent. Think of the textbooks and standardized tests in our educational systems or worn-out job descriptions that do little to address the unique jaggedness in all of us.
The early chapters of “The End of Average” take some effort to grind through before the book offers up interesting insights and examples of how to improve our current situations. Rose highlights businesses that have succeeded by prioritizing their employees’ individual skills.
Valuing loyalty and employee fulfillment, Costco is a company that retains its employees at a higher rate than its competitors while paying higher wages and offering more generous benefits. The software company Zoho has eschewed traditional management structures and performance reviews. Both companies promote heavily internally and place an emphasis on identifying and nurturing talent while treating people well.
Rose’s credentials as a research pioneer and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education carry some weight. But it’s his unlikely personal story referenced throughout “The End of Average” that serves as a practical vehicle for reinforcing the book’s message.
Growing up, Rose struggled to stay out of trouble and pass his high school classes. Married and a father at an early age, he managed to pass his GED, eventually earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees. Rose’s story serves as an interesting backdrop for the rest of the book as he explains how he bucked the system and adjusted his learning process to fit his unique individual skills.
This blend of history, scientific research and Rose’s own experiences make “The End of Average” a persuasive and enjoyable book. Rose’s work is especially relevant now as many of us look to reset and improve the methods we use to educate our children, operate our businesses, and define our own success.
Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.