The End of Average - Todd Rose

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Key takeaways

  • Organization of mediocre > unorganized group of geniuses… but organization of self-motivated, self-determined mediocre > organization of mediocre
  • Excessive standardization (factory/Taylorism model) is not fit for today’s world, in fact was never fit for any world because it assumes people’s uniformities
  • Employee loyalty is valuable, and even if it’s expensive to produce is a good investment, i.e. Costco higher ROE than Walmart (wrt to HR), and 70% of managers started on the floor
  • Equal fit> equal access to a standardized system that marginalizes those who don’t fit standards



  • Experience from US Air Force… designing to fit the average pilot = designing it to fit none
    • Only 3.5% of 4000 pilots fit 3 measurements to within 30% of the average
    • Military’s subsequent adoption of individualism ahead of society


  • ‘Average Brain’ scan = superimposed collage of individual brains… but individuals never resemble the Average
  • Quetelet, 19C guy, took ‘method of averages’ used in astronomy and applied it to social sciences
    • his concept of what average represented = a platonic ideal/truth, e.g. ideal chest measurement of Scottish soldier 
      • and therefore deviation = error
  • Galton develops idea of rank, measured by deviation from mean
    • While Quetelet believed 50% better is same deviation as 50% worse than average, Galton believed that 50% better = superior/Eminent
    • And that it was imperative of mankind to improve the average as much as possible


  • Taylor, “probably had a greater effect on the private and public lives of the men and women of the twentieth century than any other individual.” – J. Rifkin
  • He believed that “In the past the man was first, in the future the system must be first.”
  • Believed that a group of mediocre individuals organized by procedures and systems >> organization of geniuses each led by inspiration
    • “An organization composed of individual of mediocre ability, working in accordance with policies, plans, and procedures discovered by analysis of the fundamental facts of their situation, will in the long run prove more successful and stable than an organization of geniuses each led by inspiration.”
  • Determined that optimal amount of coal to shovel in a single swing = 21 pounds… developed shovels to this end
  • Taylorist styles of management trickled into education… educational Taylorists declared the mission of education to be to prepare mass numbers of students to work in a Taylorized economy
    • “School bells were introduced to emulate factory bells, in order to mentally prepare children for their future careers.” – John Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (2002)
  • Thorndike, eminent psychologist defending Taylorization of schools, believing that “quality is more important than equality”  standardized testing to separate managers from workers

Taylorization has undoubtedly done some good: increasing wages as a whole and reducing nepotism and cronyism… but averagarianism has cost us something: pain from pressure to conform to certain narrow expectations in order to succeed 


Defining assumptions of Age of Average:

  1. Average is the ideal, individual is the error
  2. If somebody is superior at one metric, they are most likely superior at most metrics
  • Molenaar recognizes ‘ergodic switch’: error/logical leap in thinking that a group distribution of scores (always) = individual’s distribution of scores 
  • This is only a valid if (1) every member of the group is identical, and (2) every member of the group will remain the same in the future
  • Instead of average  analyze… analyze  average
    • Example: stepping reflex… every baby learns to walk in a different way… averaging all methods and declaring the most common to be the ‘right method’ didn’t work


  • One-dimensional thinking cannot be applied to something that is ‘complex’/multi-faceted/jagged
    • E.g. IQ test to intelligence
  • Jaggedness = multiple dimensions + weak correlation between dimensions
    • .4 correlation between two dimensions means you have managed to explain .16 of the behavior of each dimension – Steve Jost, Linear Correlation
  • Todd Carlisle, google staffing manager collected >300 list of possible hiring dimensions/metrics, not a single one was related to employee success


  • Essentialist thinking that identity/behavior explained by traits
    • E.g. aggression>fights, extroversion>going to parties… in fact correlation rarely stronger than .3, meaning it explains 9% of behavior
  • Self-control shown to be contextual (Kidd 2013: Rational Snacking, Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability)


  • Thorndike thought quick learners are best retainers… eminence across multiple dimensions  design of school systems and tests around averages, but in fact, by demanding students to learn at one pace, their ability to learn is actually impaired
    • Are successful students successful because they’re innately gifted, or did they merely benefit from a coincidence of time


  • Taylorization  systems designed to withstand churn, to be “employee-proof”  2013 Gallup showing 70% of employees reported feeling disengaged from their jobs
  • Costco, higher ROE than Walmart
    • Promoting from within: 70% of managers started on the floor
    • Low turnover: 17% (drops to 6% after first year) vs. 40% at Walmart (2m employees)
      • Cost of turnover conservatively estimated at 60% of salary (2012 Zeynep Ton, Why ‘Good Jobs’ are Good for Retailers’)
  • Zoho, aiming to hire 50% from Zoho U (education for (traditionally) completely unqualified)
  • Morning Star, achieving employee self-determination via individual mission statements 


  • Primary goal of college should be career preparation… opportunity cost of tuition fees/time
    • But 31% of graduates cannot find a job in their field
    • Cost of degree increased 538% since 1985

3 amendments:

  1. Grant credentials not diplomas
    • All diplomas are the same regardless of difficulty? All about billable semesters… credentials are more flexible/finer-grained, and can be stacked
  2. Replace grades with competency
    • “If someone proposed combining measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number of mark to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable… yet every day, teachers combine aspects of student’s achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior into a single grade that’s recorded on a report card and no one questions it.” Thomas Gusky, Five Obstacles to Grading Reform
      • Already successful at WGU, competency-based measures of performance ensure students can learn at their own pace and be judged according to their abilities
  3. Let students determine their educational pathway
    1. Students should be encouraged to constantly re-assess what you like/might be good at


  • Equal fit creates opportunity
  • Equal access to a standardized system means less access to those who don’t fit the standards