The Principles Of Individuality


From the cradle to the grave, you are measured against the ever-present yardstick of the average, judged according to how closely you approximate it or how far you are able to exceed it. In school, you are graded and ranked by comparing your performance to the average student. To get admitted to college, your grades and test scores are compared to the average applicant. To get hired by an employer, your grades and test scores—as well as your skills, years of experience, and even your personality score—are compared to the average applicant. If you do get hired, your annual review will quite likely compare you, yet again, against the average employee in your job level. Even your financial opportunities are determined by a credit score that is evaluated by—you guessed it—its deviation from the average.

Most of us know intuitively that a score on a personality test, a rank on a standardized assessment, a grade point average, or a rating on a performance review doesn’t reflect your, or your child’s, or your students’, or your employees’ abilities. Yet the concept of average as a yardstick for measuring individuals has been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds that we rarely question it seriously. Despite our occasional discomfort with the average, we accept that it represents some kind of objective reality about people.

What if I were to tell you that this form of measurement—the average—was almost always wrong? That when it comes to understanding individuals, the average is most likely to give incorrect and misleading results? What if, like the cockpit designs and Norma statues, this ideal is just a myth?

The central premise of this book is deceptively simple: no one is average. Not you. Not your kids. Not your coworkers, or your students, or your spouse. This isn’t empty encouragement or hollow sloganeering. This is a scientific fact with enormous practical consequences that you cannot afford to ignore. You might be thinking I am touting a world that sounds suspiciously like Lake Wobegon from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, a place where “All the children are above average.” Some people must be average, you might insist, as a simple statistical truism. This book will show you how even this seemingly self-evident assumption is deeply flawed and must be abandoned.

It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.

In this book, you will learn that just as there is no such thing as average body size, there is no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, or average character. Nor are there average students or average employees—or average brains, for that matter. Every one of these familiar notions is a figment of a misguided scientific imagination. 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. Their notion of the “Average Man” did indeed solve many of their challenges and even facilitated and shaped the Industrial Age—but we no longer live in the Industrial Age. Today we face very different problems—and we possess science and math far better than what was available in the nineteenth century.

Over the past decade, I have been part of an exciting new interdisciplinary field of science known as the science of the individual. The field rejects the average as a primary tool for understanding individuals, arguing instead that we can only understand individuals by focusing on individuality in its own right. Cellular biologists, oncologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, and psychologists have recently begun to adopt the principles of this new science to fundamentally transform the study of cells, disease, genes, brains, and behavior. Several of the most successful businesses have begun to implement these principles, too. In fact, the principles of individuality are starting to be applied just about everywhere except for the one place where they will have their greatest impact—in your own life.

I wrote The End of Average to change that.

-- Todd Rose, "The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness"

Yet, averagarianism did cost us something. Just like the Norma Look-Alike competition, society compels each of us to conform to certain narrow expectations in order to succeed in school, our career, and in life. We all strive to be like everyone else—or, even more accurately, we all strive to be like everyone else, only better. 
We have lost the dignity of our individuality. Our uniqueness has become a burden, an obstacle, or a regrettable distraction on the road to success.

-- Todd Rose, "The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness"
Averagarianism forces our thinking into incredibly limiting patterns—patterns that we are largely unaware of, because the opinions we arrive at seem to be so self-evident and rational. We live in a world that encourages—no, demands—that we measure ourselves against a horde of averages and supplies us with no end of justification for doing so. We should compare our salary to the average salary to judge our professional success. We should compare our GPA to the average GPA to judge our academic success. We should compare our own age to the average age that people get married to judge whether we are marrying too late, or too early. But once you free yourself from averagarian thinking, what previously seemed impossible will start to become intuitive, and then obvious.

-- Todd Rose, "The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness"

Into The Wind

“Don’t piss into the wind.”

I asked for advice from Chuck Munson, demanded advice, and after a good think, that’s what he offered me.

“Don’t piss into the wind.”

It may have been the best advice that have ever gotten.  Certainly, it’s up there among the top.

As good as it feels to piss in the face of fools, pissing into the wind just doesn’t really do anybody any good.

TBB was in a training course when the topic of employment rules came up.   As the only engineer, the only one in the union, she felt compelled to offer a word of warning when the subject of enforcing administrative rules not covered by contract came up.

“I would check with the liaison before trying to go against collective bargaining agreements,” she said.

The rest of the group found her words distasteful.   They insisted on the rightness of their position, insisted that they had the will and the power to trump any agreement.

As an engineer who has to deal with the reality of machines, TBB knows that her will stops when it comes to the mechanics of real life.   Hell, she can’t even get the personnel department to not assign people who have proven themselves lacking, as they insist that fairness should override quality.

TBB saw a fight she couldn’t win with this group who really want to believe in their power to demand compliance.  Like so many weak managers, they imagine an organization in which people just do what they are told rather than being smart, independent individuals with their own diverse understandings.

If it wasn’t a class on leadership, she would have stayed silent.   As a mouthy broad with a smart head on her shoulders, she learned a long time ago what Chuck told me: don’t piss into the wind.

For people like TBB and I, speaking the truth, even when it was not only inconvenient but also ineffective was what we learned to do very early.  It got us into plenty of trouble until we got the lesson Chuck wanted me to know: don’t piss into the wind.

Entering a fight with a group of people who are sticking together to defend their own desires, their own insider status, well, that isn’t going to end well for the intruder.   Yes, it may soften the ground, may plant some seeds, but the person who does that is still going to end up battered and devalued.

TBB felt that old cold wind when they closed ranks to try and silence her.   Now, she is TBB, so she didn’t back down, but she did feel how much the lessons of diversity and respect were ignored to try and marginalize her as a threat to the illusions of absolute control.  She felt it and it hurt her, even though her tough shell took the blow.

Raising the subject again later, she tried to explain what happened to the facilitator who offered to let her leave.   That wasn’t the point.

We can’t fight and win every battle.   We have to pick and choose, deciding when we have a chance to make a win and when we will just be pissing into the wind.  You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em and at our age, we fold.   TBB even wonders why people look her up on the internet anymore after so many years of trying hard not to piss into the wind.

Choosing battles carefully because after a lifetime of experience we know the price of futile and stupid gestures is reality for transpeople.   Newly out transpeople may try to tell people how to think, try to imagine a world where they can order correctness, but after a while, you learn to be more considerate with your piss and vinegar.

TBB has been around long enough to know that she is the one who is going to have to clean up the mess.   Even her staff has trouble speaking up when things aren’t right, wanting to just stick to their knitting rather than make waves.    This makes her even more aware of the need to pick her battles, to fight less and be more effective.

We know the moment our fight goes all pear shaped, when what we are trying to offer to the group is just getting dismissed and erased.   Speaking up is important, but, well, Chuck was right; pissing into the wind doesn’t really serve any good purpose.

Get shut down enough times, though, and if you don’t have the spark TBB brings, you can just learn to not even try to fight for what you think is right.  You can learn to keep your head down, let stuff pass and just be satisfied with the mediocre.

As TBB likes to say, failure is not an option.  It is, though, a possibility if we don’t value and encourage the fight to be better everyday.

Keep throwing good stuff back in people’s faces, though, dowsing their spirit, and you will never get the best from them.

What do you think is worth fighting for, even if you get a little blow back?

How many times, how many years, how many decades are you willing to fight the same fight?

And when do you just decide the fight is no longer worth the effort?

Continue reading Into The Wind