The End of Average by Todd Rose

“Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forfty percent of all people know that.” This is a classic quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Homer J. Simpson. This quote perfectly highlights how statistics can be utterly meaningless. In the wrong hands (either knowingly or unknowingly), any number can be massaged to fit a desired narrative. It is one of the reasons why using statistics in a debate is useless.

The concept of average is very misleading. Mathematically, it is simply the sum of the numbers divided by the amount of numbers. It is a simple tool that can help paint a quick image, however, the image can be quite distorted. It would be very misleading for me to say that my child and I average of 20 hours of work per week. I work 40 hours, she works zero (she is only 5 years old).

This book attempts to dismantle the acceptance of average. Every day we compare ourselves to the average. Am I making an average salary? Are my kids learning above average? Do I eat more than others?

As much as I enjoyed this book, in the end, it felt like a great magazine article stretched into a 200-page book. The first story perfectly identifies the problem with average. The United States Air Forces attempted to create airplane cockpits that were acceptable for most pilots. They measured all their pilots from height to weight to arm span to waist sizes to a myriad of other factors and created a so-called average pilot. However, they soon noticed that the vast majority of their pilots did not fit into the parameters of their fabricated average pilot. Instead, they needed to create a cockpit and a system that was adjustable to most pilots. They needed to build the system around the pilots, not pilots for the system.

The rest of the book sort of drills home this same point to a lesser degree. The overarching theme is individuality. The author doesn’t suggest that we throw out all objective systems, however, he does propose wholesale changes too many systems.

One proposed change that stuck out to me was higher education. His suggestions emphasize credential only education and are adversarial to the liberal arts college idea. I agree both should be part of the higher education landscape, however, I side more with liberal arts. I believe credential only education is less innovative and more reactionary. A few years ago, petroleum engineering was one of the most needed and profitable degrees out there. However, within a couple of years that can change dramatically due to changes in politics, technology advances, or global supply.

Now, you may be thinking I didn’t like the book. I did like it, but after the first chapter, I just didn’t feel like I was learning too much. The subtitle and quotes on the front cover of the paperback version led me to feel like the book was going to be something else.