Review: The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rose undermines a deep assumption of the modern world; the primacy of average. He illustrates that throughout society, we use the average as a litmus test for judging all things, even though no singular person ever meets all the criteria of the average. After unpacking where the concept of the average came from and how it came to dominate our society, he then questions the usefulness of it in a variety of situations. He flips the idea of trying to get everyone to adhere to the average and asks what happens when we make thinks flexible to the individual. His iconic example is fighter pilot cockpits and how until they were made to be adjustable to the individual, rather than the "average" body, they inevitably failed in making humans more effective flyers and fighters. Anchoring this as his most visceral point, he then moves into looking at how different aspects of society (health, work, school) conform to this principle and in doing so, what it misses out. For example, he illustrates how our obsession with the average dominates how we view babies and their progression and because the concept of average boils things down to a single number or representative structure, it removes opportunities to consider different paths. With babies, he notes that society's sense of progression of crawling to standing to walking is the assumed way, even though newer research shows us that this is not the case. In fact, there are several different methods for achieving walking for babies and we're largely informed by a modern Western world, where babies crawling on the floor is a norm because we assume that it's safe. In other parts of the world, crawling to walking doesn't make sense because being facedown on the ground can be a dangerous place for a baby--yet they still learn to walk without crawling.
All of this is to say that Rose has many good points in unpacking this concept of average and the ways it limits our thinking and our ability to maximize the possibilities in individuals and in society. Where he seems to falter a little (at least for me) is his argument that higher education suffers from this investment in average (that part, I do agree with) and an example of that are degrees that don't train for a specific profession. He grounds his argument in showing that degrees someone how all come out to the same amount of time (e.g. 4 years and a certain amount of credits) with no guarantee of a specific set of skills. Now, this seems out of place since, in previous chapters, he talked about how the work environment was fixated on the average in how it evaluated employees, how it conceived of positions, and how it saw the role of its employees in the organization. The ultimate outcome of that was that companies should be flexible to the individual for maximum benefit. Therefore, to then argue that colleges should prepare students for specific professions (which in itself are positions conceived of conceptions about what the average profession should be able to do), seems a blind spot. Coupled this with the fact that while degrees are often credit based, they are much more flexible than he lets (e.g. he seems to ignore associates, masters, and doctorates or certificates, for that matter) and his focus on education feels a little bit shoddy. Regardless, I found it quite useful in rethinking how I conceptualize and consider the role of average in my personal and professional life.
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