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Todd Rose’s book, The End of Average shows overs and over again that most of our social and institutional systems over the last hundred years or so are designed around the average person and sadly are doomed to fail. No one is average. The moment one needs to make a decision about an individual, the average is useless and even harmful because it gives us a false sense of knowledge. This quassi-knowledge has been based on an imperfect human invention of the average that helped solve the problems of a 100 years ago during the Industrial Age.
Furthermore, the Age of the Average, which came out of our Industrial Age, was built on imperfect science. Adolphe Quetelet, who was born in 1796, was a man who was looking for fortune and fame. He wanted to be the Isaac Newton of his age. He kind of achieved this by using the mathematics from his failed astronomy career and applying it to humans. He borrowed astronomy methods of averages (averages were used because most astronomers couldn’t agree on anything), and actually applied it to human beings! And somehow this imperfect science caught on and the world changed to where according to Rose the average person came to represent the true human, and the individual person became synonymous with error. Every one of us became a flawed copy of some kind of cosmic template for human beings, which they called, “The Average Man”. Basically, average became normal, even though it didn’t truly exist, and the individual became error. Kind of crazy sounding, isn’t it?
Next came Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton. He agreed with everything that Quetelet said except the average being the perfect being. Instead he created a ranking system and said it was better if one was above average. He used Darwin’s research on evolution and survival of the fittest to back up his claims. So now, with Quetelet’s influence, if one wasn’t average, they were wrong. And then with Galton’s influence, if one wasn’t above average, they too were wrong. It was a lose-lose situation for most of us, if not all of us.
Sadly, Quetelet’s idea of the Average Man and Galton’s idea of rank somehow became part of our current system of education, hiring practices in the work place, and employee evaluations. Individuality, eventually didn’t matter anymore. The thought process became that people could only be understood by comparing them to a group. Today, we judge, whether we want to or not, everyone we meet against the average, including ourselves.
Rose next speaks about Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who like Bill Gates, opted out of Harvard so he could go change the world. Taylor believed that he could eliminate inefficiency in our newly electrified factories during the Industrial Age, which was just as big as a deal as what Gates did in the Information Age. Taylor decided to make his mark through adopting the principles of averagarianism and standardization where the system would trump the individual. The worker, who was once celebrated as a creative craftsman, was demoted to the role of automation. Here the new role of the manager was born despite the fact that people initially thought it was crazy to hire someone to plan a job who couldn’t actually do the job.
Taylor’s book, The Principles of Scientific Management, was a huge success as it swept across all the world’s capitalistic industries and countries. In some cases, such as in the communist regimes in Russia and Asia, standardization was taking to even higher levels in Stalin’s 5 Year Plans and Toyota’s system of “Just in Time”. Today, Taylor’s scientific management philosophy remains the most dominant business philosophy in every industrialized country in the world.
The truth is that in 1900, factories needed semi-skilled workers. However, only 6% of the American population had graduated from high school at that time. And more and more immigrants were washing up on our shores every day. At that time in our history a real crisis of not enough skilled laborers was developing. Thus, Taylor work place practices of standardization came to save the day by trickling down to our American educational system to supply our factories with the workers they needed. A standard education eventually won out over a holistic one, and students were educated all the same exact way, regardless of their backgrounds, abilities or interest. Like their parents in the factories, they had been automated in the schools, graduation rates soared, and it seemed like once again, averagarianism and standardization had been successful.
In the Age of Average the next Quetelet disciple to come along was Edward Thorndike. In his book Rose states that Thorndike was one of the most influential psychologist of all time. He helped invent educational psychology and educational psychometrics. He established the mission of schools and colleges. His mentor at Harvard, William James, called him a freak of nature for his workaholic productivity. Thorndike embraced Galton’s ideas of separating and ranking students, as well as Taylor’s standardization. Thorndike believe the purpose of schools wasn’t to educate all students to the same level, but to sort them according to their innate level of talent and proper stations in life.
Thus, due to the influence of Quetelet, Galton, Taylor, Thorndike and others, today all of our social institutions ignore people’s own unique individuality and assess people in terms of their relationship to the average or how closely they approximate the average and how far they are able to exceed it.
Now, to be perfectly clear, Rose believes that the Age of Average wasn’t a complete disaster. Rose admits that it made us productive enough in our schools and factories to become a world leader. However, it did cost us something too. Now society compels us to conform to certain narrow expectations in order to succeed in school, work and life. We all strive to be like everyone else, but only better. Sadly, our uniqueness has become an obstacle.
Fortunately, along comes another averagarianism scientist named Peter Molenaar who would eventually shake up the Age of Average. Molenaar came to realize that the bible of testing, Statistical Theories of Mental Test Scores, concealed the thread that would unravel averagarianism. Molenaar recognized the fatal flaw of averagarianism was in its paradoxical assumption that you could only understand individuals by ignoring their individuality. He named this error “The Ergodic Switch”.
According to ergodic theory, one can only use group averages if every member of the group is identical and will remain the same in the future. It should be pretty obvious to all us us by now that complex human beings are not ergodic.
The funny thing is that no one disputed Molenaar’s math. What they did respond with however, was, “What you are proposing is anarchy!” They also responded with, “If we can’t use averages to evaluate, model, and select individuals, well then… what do we use?”
The Principles of Individuality
The first principle of individuality is jaggedness. Something is jagged if it contains multiple dimensions, and these dimensions are weakly related to each other. In the language of mathematics this would be called a weak correlation. Unfortunately, according to Rose, one dimensional averagarianism thinking has caused us to believe weak correlations mean something that they do not.
A (0.4) correlation between two dimensions means that we have managed to explain 16% of the behaviors in each dimension. Do we really understand something if we can only explain 16% of it? Well, if our ultimate goal is efficiency and the system, then 16% appears to be enough for most people since Quetelet started applying his astronomy math to human beings. However, if our goal is to identify and nurture individual excellence, then wouldn’t you agree that a 16% correlation isn’t enough to be basing decisions about ALL human beings?
Initially, Microsoft, Google and Deloitte evaluated individuals by ranking them. They too fell into Galton’s belief that if someone was good at one thing, then they must be good at most things. But, they soon discovered that talent can’t be boiled down to one number and then compared to the average because it’s one dimensional thinking.
When organizations embrace jaggedness, like these companies above eventually did, they often feel like they have found a way to uncover diamonds in the rough or to discover hidden talent. However, the real difficulty is not in finding new ways to discover talent, but it is in getting rid of the one-dimensional thinking blinders that prevented us from seeing it all along. And even more importantly, Rose believes that the blinders that we need to take off the most are the ones we use when looking at ourselves. When we recognize jaggedness, we are not only better able to open doors for our own children, students, athletes, and employees, but we’re also able to open doors for ourselves… And that’s a good thing.
People change according to the circumstances they find themselves in. The often used trait theory and essentialist thinking does a bad job of explaining human behavior because it ignores the second principle of individuality called the context principle. Trait-based tests assume that you’re either one thing or another thing, like an extrovert or an introvert. However, Yuichi Shoda, a top researcher in child development showed that people are really both, an extrovert and an introvert depending on the context that they find themselves in. And similar to Molenaar, people also accused Shoda of promoting anarchy.
The bottom line is that we rarely see the diversity of contexts in the lives of our acquaintances, so we make judgements about who they are based on limited information. Knowing contextual if-then signatures (if this happens, then she does that) helps us make better decisions about people. Asking “Why” people are behaving that way in that context helps parents, teachers, counselors and managers help their people succeed and builds positive relationships. This strategy can also be applied to oneself and can produce some great results.
People change according to the circumstances that they find themselves in. Thus, we all end up walking the road less traveled. However, Averagarianism thinking dubes us into believing that not only are there ‘normal’ brains, bodies and personalities, but there are also ‘normal’ pathways that lead us to the one right way to learn and obtain our goals. We can thank Fredrick Taylor and Edward Thorndike who promoted a standard career track within hierarchical organizations, which then trickled down to education, for this faulty kind of thinking about pathways to success.
This faulty kind of thinking is very limiting. These temporal norms originally designed to maximize factory efficiency has unfortunately turned into invisible pace-setters for all aspects of our personal and professional lives. We all have come to believe that we’re either on the right track for success or not.
The cold hard fact that there really isn’t a single normal pathway for any type of human development, biological, mental, moral, or professional forms the basis for the third principle of individuality called the pathway principle. This principle makes two important affirmations. First, for all aspects of life, there are many equally valid ways to reach the same outcome. And two, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.
According to psychologist Kurt Fischer there are no fixed ladders of development, but only webs of development where each new step opens up a whole new set of possibilities according to our own individuality. You see, we assume that way to success is to follow a well-blazed trail. But the fact is that we are making our own trail. Thus, we need to spend some time understanding our own jaggedness and if-then signatures because that’s the only way to judge if the path we are on is the path that fits our individuality. There will always be more than one pathway available to us, and the odds are that the best one for us is the one that is less traveled.
The Age of Individuals
In the Taylorist averagarian system of standardization and hierarchies where the system prevails and the average employee is expendable, a 2013 Gallup Study found that 70% of employees felt disengaged from their job. Google and Costco have turned away from this system of Taylorization and have now been named to the list of “Top Places to Work” due to their new philosophy toward the individual. If you hire great people, give them good wages, treat them with dignity, and give them an honest path for a career, great things will happen.
Costco truly believes in finding a good fit. One of Costco’s strategies to finding good fits is by identifying students from local colleges who are already working part-time for them who are a good fit. They hire these people for fulltime work when they graduate. Costco finds this strategy much more beneficial than actively seeking out and hiring graduates from prestigious universities. Costco also gives their employees great benefits and pays them 75% more than Walmart does and has still been profitable every single year since they went public. A lot of Costco’s success has to do with employee loyalty and low employee turnover costs. This is helping them beat Walmart at their own game of low costs and efficiency. Walmart has any extremely high employee turnover costs due to its Taylorization system.
Another interesting case is Zoho Technology Corporation of India who took on the behemoth Microsoft. In the beginning Zoho couldn’t afford to hire the kind of talent that Microsoft could, so Zoho had to look for talent in different ways and in different places. Amazingly, even against all these odds, Zoho quickly became known for creating great stuff with a talent pool that none of their competitors would have hired.
Zoho’s founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu found that there was little or no correlation between grades and perceived quality of diploma and on-the-job performance as computer programmers. This made him wonder why all the Big Boys were wearing blinders and made the narrow pathway of college a pre-condition to be hired in their companies. Zembu decided to cultivate talent himself by creating his own Zoho University where he would not only give raw, unproven kids a shot, but he would even pay them to go to his school. His school was self-paced, had no grades and used feedback based on projects. And guess what? It’s working! Vembu has hired some amazing unknowns from some of the poorest neighborhoods in India from his university program who have gone off to do great things.
Since Vembu doesn’t agree with evaluating people based on averages, Zoho doesn’t have performance reviews. There are no score cards. There are no employee rankings. If a manager has a concern with an employee, they have a one-on-one discussion so the manager can address it and help that employee right then and right there rather than several months later at a nerve-racking performance review.
Zoho pays fair wages and great benefits. It identifies talent and nurtures it. And that talent responds by being fully engaged and extremely productive. Zembu says that if you treat individuals with respect, as individuals, you will get more out of them than what you put into them. These simple common sense strategies based on individuals over the system is how Zoho can compete with the Big Boys while using a talent pool that the Big Boys would never even look at, let alone consider hiring and working with.
Another interesting company that is doing some really ground-breaking stuff according to Rose is Morning Star. Morning Star has a self-managing philosophy. There are no managers. There is no hierarchy. Morning Star does everything it can to promote the power of the individual. Employees can even modify their own jobs however they want to as long as they can convince employees affected by the change that it’s a good idea.
Believe it or not, this can be the new win-win type of capitalism when individuality is taking seriously instead of the Robber Barons and every employee is transitioned into an independent agent. The new empowered employees are tasked with figuring out the best way of doing his or her job and contributing to the company in a meaningful way rather than being disengaged and having one foot already out the door. Remember, the 2013 Gallup Survey found that 70% of employees disengaged. And Walmart has a turnover rate of about 50% annually. That means that Walmart has to replace about a million people a year. Just think about the enormous costs of doing that…
Western Governors University is breaking out of the traditional Taylorism system of education where high schools and colleges are controlling almost every aspect of their students’ lives and forcing their students to be just like everyone else, but only better. In addition, students are paying more and more for this kind of maltreatment as well. Western Governors University has on-line self-paced classes with competency exams. This University only costs $6,000 for as many classes as one can finish in two semesters.
More than 200 schools are now exploring competency-based forms of evaluating performance. And many are doing away with traditional grades. Even MIT is offering several credentialing programs because it offers more flexible and finer-grained level of certification of one’s skills, abilities and knowledge than the typical four year college diploma. The State of Virginia is also offering credentialing instead of the four year college programs where they have a shortage of qualified candidates.
In short, students should be able to take courses anywhere and stack credentialing from all over, according to Todd Rose. Students should be able to learn the material at their own pace, and even for free if they can figure out a way, like maybe going to the free public library, for some of their education. In addition, with self-determined competency-based credentialing there will be fewer penalties for experimenting in order to discover what one’s true passion really is. This would also create better matches between students and employees because credentials would adjust in real time. Rose doesn’t want to do away with colleges, he just wants them to change to meet the needs of today’s students.
A good fit with our environment, whether it’s a classroom, cockpit or corner office, creates opportunity to show what we are truly capable of as unique individual human beings. But one must remember that equal access is not the same as equal fit. Equal access helped move us forward as a more fair society during the Industrial Age. Today, it’s different. Today, only equal fit creates true equal opportunity.
Back in 1931, James Tuslow Adams coined the term, American Dream in direct response to the growing influence of Taylorism and the efficiency movement, which valued the system, but had no regard for the individuals to whom alone any system could mean anything. The American Dream wasn’t about the white picket fence or being rich. Rather, it was about having the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest, as well as being appreciated for who we really are.
Unfortunately, averagarianism has corrupted the American Dream, and has made it more about economic success than anything else. This corruption of our American Dream has caused the fabric of our society to change, as well as the way we view each other, and view ourselves.
The principles of individuality presents a way to restore the American Dream, and even better, the chance for everyone to attain it in their own unique way. It’s time for all of our institutions, especially our schools, to embrace individuality and to adopt equal fit instead of equal access. We can break free of the tyranny of averagarianism and standardization by choosing to value individuality and get the American Dream back again by being the best we can be and living a life of excellence as we define it by ending the age of average.