The last of the books I picked up on a whim while in Singapore is Todd Rose’s The End of Average. It’s a short, popular psychology read with a pretty simple premise: no one is average. Rose’s book isn’t trumpeting some utopian ideal where everyone is above average. Instead it’s a look at the generally shaky science and history behind our reliance on averages.
The common mistake we make when relying upon averages is to compare individuals rather than groups. He opens the book relating the story of Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels, who discovered that designing a plane cockpit around the measurements of an average pilot meant it fit no pilot. Rather than a reliance on averages Rose argues for three principles.
Talent, among other things, is jagged. What Rose means is that we cannot apply one-dimensional thinking when looking to understand something that isn’t evenly distributed. Much of our intelligence consists of multiple dimensions that are only very weakly related to one another.
He gives the example of Isiah Thomas, who as General Manager of the New York Knicks set out to build a high-scoring roster of players. The problem is that he prioritized scoring averages for every player. And simply having talented scorers doesn’t mean that talent translates to rebounding, defense, and the numerous other skills required to excel as a basketball team.
In explaining the importance of context Rose relates the work of Yuichi Shoda. What Shoda’s research showed was that the way we behave always depends on both the individual and the situation. For example, while we may identify as an introvert or an extrovert what Shoda’s research illustrates is that we’re really both. It’s our circumstances and our traits that determine our behavior. If you’re trying to understand someone, relying on descriptions of their “average” behavior will lead you astray.
The pathways principle that Rose describes makes two affirmations. First, that for a given goal there are numerous valid pathways for achieving the outcome. Second, that the optimal pathway depends on our own individuality. The “right” pathway, in other words, isn’t the one followed by the nominally average individual. It’s the one that’s right for us.
The most compelling area Rose relates this principle to is education. He covers the work of Benjamin Bloom, who showed that when people are allowed flexibility in the pace of their learning the vast majority will perform well. In other words, the pace of our learning does not equal our ability. No one is a universally fast or slow learner. Schools, of course, aren’t exactly set up to allow for that realization.