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1-Page Summary of The End of Average
No Such Thing
In the 1940s, there were many plane crashes in noncombat situations. The military couldn’t find a common cause for these accidents. They assumed that it was pilot error, but when they couldn’t pinpoint any deficits in skills or physical dimensions of pilots, they considered other factors such as cockpit design. At the time, cockpits conformed to typical dimensions of male pilots calculated in the 1920s by averaging measurements of hundreds of pilots. Military engineers recalculated these averages based on more than 4,000 measurements and found no average range for all ten primary size dimensions among those thousands of aviators—no one fit into all 10 categories! Lt Gilbert S Daniels drew a surprising conclusion from this data: There is no such thing as an average pilot (3% fell within 3 out of 10 dimensions). Based on his findings, he redesigned cockpits with adjustable seats and pedals so each person could fit perfectly inside them.
The Average Woman
In the 1940s, Dr. Robert L. Dickinson and his collaborator Abram Belskie sculpted a figure of the average woman based on data from 15,000 women. The Cleveland Health Museum displayed the statue called Norma and held a contest to find out who most closely matched her ideal body type. More than 3,800 women participated in the contest but only 40 were within five inches of matching her measurements as described by Dickinson himself. He blamed women for being “unfit” if they didn’t match up to his standards because it was their fault that they weren’t perfect enough according to him since he was basing this off of scientific evidence rather than what felt good or looked good on them personally.
The Science of the Individual
Most companies and institutions think like Dickinson. They evaluate people based on the average, using GPA, class rank, and other measurements. Schools measure students against the average as well. Firms hire candidates who are above-average in terms of GPA and class rank rather than looking at actual merit. However, these measures aren’t accurate because they don’t take into account outliers or those who have exceptional skills but lack formal education to show for it.
Averages are useful when looking at groups of people. For example, you can compare the performance of fourth graders in America with that of Japanese fourth graders. However, averages are useless and misleading when it comes to evaluating individuals. Today’s science is all about focusing on uniqueness rather than average characteristics. You should apply this principle to your own life as well.
“The Age of Average”
In the 1830s, a Dutch astronomer named Adolph Quetelet applied mathematics to the social sciences. He did this by using astronomy’s method of averages, which he used to analyze data gathered about people and organizations. For example, he calculated the average chest size of Scottish soldiers by adding together 5,738 measurements and finding that number as an average. He concluded that individual variation was synonymous with error.
Quetelet’s theory of the average as ideal aligns with human tendency to group people into classes. For example, we might say that “lawyers” are a type of person or that “Mexicans” are a type of person. Quetelet drew followers from every field and one was Florence Nightingale who used his method for planning hospitals. Soon, the idea of ranking people based on their deviation from an average became popular. Sir Francis Galton also followed this idea but he ranked people differently than Quetelet did. He thought that someone who ran faster than the average would be superior to someone who ran slower than the average even though they were both above the norm (average).