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"

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