How 'average' people become extraordinary

By Anna Hart

Simon Cowell, JK Rowling and Oprah Winfrey were once far from successful people. Photos / Getty
Simon Cowell, JK Rowling and Oprah Winfrey were once far from successful people. Photos / Getty

Mr Average? There's no such person. So how do you stand out from the crowd? Develop a "jagged profile", according to a new book.

When Todd Rose was 21 years old, he was a high-school dropout struggling to support his wife and two small children on state benefits. He had done 10 minimum-wage jobs in two years.

"My favourite job was administering enemas to elderly people, because this meant I was allowed to drive around, rather than being stuck behind a desk or stamping aluminium on the factory floor," he says.

"My father-in-law told me I was lazy, and I can't blame him. If this was my daughter, I'd be the same."

Today, aged 41, he's a Harvard professor with a string of accolades to his name, still happily married, with both kids at college. "So I didn't mess them up," he says with a smile - and one hopes his relationship with his in-laws is less fraught these days.

Professor Rose is co-founder and president of the Centre for Individual Opportunity, and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And his groundbreaking new book, The End of Average, is set to be a key text within the science of the individual, a multi-disciplinary field drawing upon recent scientific and mathematical findings to demonstrate that it is simply not possible to draw meaningful conclusions about human beings using statistical averages.

• Scroll down for celebrities who went from zero to hero

"For more than a century, this average-size-fits-all model has ignored our individuality and failed to recognise talent," Rose says.

The implications of abandoning averages are far-reaching, for children within the educational system, for employees and employers, and for our personal relationships.

It was a Belgian astronomer and statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, who invented the idea of the "average man" in 1835, characterised by the mean values of measured variables (physical and intellectual) that follow a normal distribution.

"When I say 'average doesn't exist', this is no bumper-sticker slogan," says Rose. "It is mathematical fact, with enormous practical implications."

Rose cites the example of the US airforce, which in the 1950s began investigating why pilots were struggling to control their planes. It turned out not to be pilot error or poor training, but the way in which cockpits were designed: around the body shape of the "average" pilot of the 1920s.

With the help of a Harvard College graduate named Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels, the airforce measured 4,000 pilots on 10 dimensions of size - such as torso length and chest circumference - assuming that most pilots would be within the average range for most dimensions, and many would perfectly fit all 10.

The results were staggering: a grand total of zero pilots fitted this average size profile on all 10 counts. Even when just three dimensions were used, only 3.5 per cent of the pilots were "average". Instead, most had what Rose calls a "jagged profile", varying greatly on all dimensions.

"By designing the cockpit for the average man, they were designing jets for nobody," says Rose. The airforce responded by abandoning the idea of "designing-to-average" physical stature, demanding that manufacturers instead adopt design that was adjustable for extremes of size, fitting both the tallest or the shortest, and those with wide or narrow chests. This led to innovations we now take for granted, such as adjustable seats.

To Rose's mind, averages have failed us spectacularly - especially in our educational institutions. "We might not all need to fit into a cockpit, but we have had to fit into a classroom," he says. And we have yet to see the equivalent of adjustable seating within education. Students are grouped in classes based on chronological age; curriculums and Oxford textbooks are written to be "age-appropriate"; standardised assessments, such as SATs, GCSEs or IQ tests, are also based on a comparison to a hypothetical average student.

We are addicted to averages, Rose says, "because it promises to simplify and quantify something complicated and unquantifiable: human potential".

Today, our entire education system is based on the average learner, when there is no such thing. "So schools fail at what they're supposed to do - recognise and nurture talent," says Rose.

He knows this first-hand. He grew up in Ogden, Utah, a rural part of America where, he says, "conformity was the most prized thing of all". By the age of eight, he was painfully aware that he didn't fit in. "You are never more judged than you are in school," says Rose.

His behaviour wasn't particularly dramatic, "just a little hyperactive and a bit forgetful" but the bad report cards rolled in, he became isolated socially, and he hated school, eventually dropping out of high school.

"I totally flunked," he says. He was left convinced that he was lazy, stupid and unteachable.

But when he left that tenth dead-end job at 21, he received some life-changing advice from his father, who had worked his way up from being a mechanic to a mechanical engineer. "He told me I wasn't lazy or stupid, I just needed a job that would interest me and where I'd thrive - but that he couldn't see this happening until I had an education," says Rose.

These words hit home, and he eventually enrolled at the local college, Weber State University, where he ignored the guidance counsellor's advice to take classes he'd failed at school, instead taking advanced classes in subjects that interested him, like economics.

He kept a diary, noting the specific context in which he found learning challenging - variables such as a particular teacher, environment or skill set - and began to recognise patterns, gradually compiling his very own "jagged profile" as a learner.

And it worked: Rose graduated as the top student of the class, with straight As, the honour student of the year.

Originally set on neurology, he found himself gripped by psychology - not least because he was only partially convinced by the studies that developmental psychology is built on.

"Psychological studies all seemed to miss the important details that made me able to succeed," he explains. "That's when I became interested in the science of individuality."

In 2001, Harvard had just created its mind, brain and education programme, when Rose took his doctorate there. Today, he's the director of it, and The End of Average is the culmination of years of research, as well as his personal experience of a system that failed him.

The End of Average will be available from January 26. Photo / Harper Collins
The End of Average will be available from January 26. Photo / Harper Collins

"Teachers and parents know that our public education systems aren't really working, and companies know that HR departments don't work in terms of finding talent," he says. The problem, according to Rose, is how we see human beings.

"We need to realise that there is no such thing as an average human, and stop measuring ourselves according to arbitrary yardsticks with no real basis in human nature." The exciting development, for Rose, is that we now have the technology to facilitate more flexible learning and assessments in schools, such as translation apps or voice recognition technology.

But Rose isn't merely advocating a reform of our academic institutions and HR departments - he wants us to change how we see ourselves and the people we care about. "They tyranny of the average means that we allow ourselves to be stereotyped, striving to fit someone else's idea of who we should be," he says. "When we stop comparing ourselves to a non-existent 'average', the gates just open."


JK Rowling

The UK's bestselling living author, and creator of the Harry Potter franchise, was unhappy as a teenager, considered "not exceptional" by her English teacher, and failed to get into the University of Oxford.

When she wrote the first Harry Potter she was an unemployed single mother relying on benefits.

Oprah Winfrey

Struggled socially and academically until her late teens, and was fired from her first broadcasting job as a newsreader in Baltimore. She went on to become the queen of American talk shows, and now heads a media empire worth over $3 billion.

Sir Richard Branson

The son of a barrister and a flight attendant, he suffered from dyslexia and was a poor student. On his last day, his headmaster told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. He is now worth an estimated $4.8 billion.

Jodie Kidd

Left boarding school with one GCSE in art and embarked on an equestrian career. She was scouted by a modelling agent, later became a successful racing driver, and reportedly turned down an offer to be Chris Evans's co-presenter on Top Gear.

Simon Cowell

Left school at 16 to attend a technical college with three O-levels, before leaving to take a string of menial jobs. His father, an executive at EMI, got him a job in the mail room. He now dominates the British pop music industry.

Steven Spielberg

He applied to several film schools, but was rejected due to poor grades. He attended California State Long Beach to study English, but dropped out in 1968 when his short, Amblin, won an award at the Atlanta Film Festival. In 1975, he made Jaws.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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