The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness - Todd Rose (2016)



In 2003, the U.S. Third Infantry Division was advancing toward the North Baghdad Bridge spanning the Tigris River when they unexpectedly stumbled on a nest of enemy soldiers who began to shower rocket-propelled grenades down onto the American forces. The infantry called for air support, and the air force sent in Captain K. Campbell, whose call sign was “Killer C.” Despite the fierce nickname, Killer C was quite short for a pilot. In 1952, Campbell would never have fit into a cockpit designed for the average pilot, but in 2003 this undersized pilot was flying an A-10 Warthog, a ferocious beast of an aircraft created to wreak havoc upon ground forces.1

As Campbell unleashed the Warthog’s firepower upon the Republican Guard, a huge explosion rocked the entire plane. “It felt and sounded like being in a car accident,” Campbell told me.2 A surface-to-air missile had shredded the rear of the plane, severely damaging the tail, fuselage, cowling, and horizontal stabilizers. Be assured, these are all essential parts of an airplane. All the hydraulic gauges flatlined as the controls lit up with flashing “EMERGENCY” lights. The flaming Warthog began diving straight down into the center of Baghdad—and when Campbell tried to pull up, the flight stick failed to respond.

Campbell glanced down at the ejection handle and for a moment considered ejecting and parachuting to safety. But this would mean allowing the monster jet to crash down through the streets of a crowded metropolis. Instead, Campbell flipped a switch that shifted the plane to manual piloting. Moving the flight stick into manual means using your own arm strength to pull heavy steel wires anchored to rudders and flaps. The closest analogy to manual piloting might be driving a car without power steering—except in this situation, it was more like driving a dump truck at two hundred miles an hour without power steering or rear tires, while missiles are being shot at you. Warthog pilots practice manual piloting once during their entire training, and never practice manual landing for the simple reason that it is too dangerous.3

In an attempt at making the perforated plane easier to control, Killer C jettisoned all the Warthog’s weapons except for a countermeasures pod permanently affixed to the left wing of the plane. The suddenly asymmetric weight of the plane caused it to roll sharply to the left. “It was a heart-stopping moment,” Campbell told me.4 “I thought I was going to roll right into the ground.” Picture the scene: a pint-size pilot trying to muscle a mechanical juggernaut out of a death spiral using the same hand-powered controls employed by the Wright Brothers … and succeeding.

Campbell regained control and flew out of Baghdad back to the American base in Kuwait where another tough decision had to be made: whether to attempt a manual landing. Manual piloting is incredibly difficult under the best of conditions. Manual landing is far harder. Campbell knew that manual landings of the Warthog had been attempted exactly three times before. The first time, the pilot died. The second time, the plane crashed and burned. The third time was a success, though the plane was not in as rough shape as Campbell’s was.5

“It took me an hour to fly back to the base, so during that time I started getting comfortable with the controls,” Campbell told me. “Not everyone agreed that I should have tried to land. But I had a lot of time to think about everything, the specific factors of that day, the clear weather conditions, good visibility, my comfort with the controls, an experienced wingman, the fact that I had been flying manual with my left arm to keep my right arm fresh for the landing. I’m the one in the seat and on that day I made the decision to land.”6

Campbell did not crash and did not burn. Instead, a fellow pilot reported that Campbell “landed in manual more smoothly than I landed with hydraulics.”7 Campbell—now a colonel working in the Pentagon—received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a commendation from the South Carolina legislature.8 But the acknowledgment that meant the most was scrawled on the back of a napkin: “Thanks for saving our ass that day,” signed by a member of the Third Infantry.9


I hope I have captured just how incredible a pilot Killer C is. But I would never be telling you this story if the U.S. Air Force still insisted that our pilots fit inside a cockpit designed for an average pilot: Colonel Kim N. Campbell, whose real call sign is Killer Chick, is five foot four and weighs 120 pounds10—and she could not be any further from someone’s idea of an “average” pilot.

There is an important lesson here about the nature of opportunity. When the military adopted Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels’s radical idea of creating adjustable cockpits that fit any person’s body, nobody was talking about expanding the pool of pilot talent, let alone advocating for gender equity. They just wanted their existing pilots to perform better. The air force did not get Campbell because they designed a female-friendly plane, they got Campbell because they made a commitment to build planes designed to fit the jagged profile of individual pilots, whatever their jaggedness might be. “When I climb into the Warthog,” Campbell said to me, “the seat needs to go to its maximum height and the pedals go all the way back—but it fits.”11

This is the lesson of Kim Campbell: fit creates opportunity. If the environment is a bad match with our individuality—if we cannot reach the controls in the cockpit—our performance will always be artificially impaired. If we do get a good fit with our environment—whether that environment is a cockpit, a classroom, or a corner office—we will have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of. This means that if we want equal opportunity for everyone, if we want a society where each one of us has the same chance to live up to our full potential, then we must create professional, educational, and social institutions that are responsive to individuality.

This is not how we usually think about equal opportunity. During the Age of Average we have defined opportunity as “equal access”—as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences.12 Of course, equal access is undoubtedly preferable to older alternatives such as nepotism, cronyism, racism, misogyny, and classism. And there is no doubt that equal access has improved society immensely, creating a society that is more tolerant, respectful, and inclusive.13 But equal access suffers from one major shortcoming: it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.

Imagine if the Air Force had passed a policy to allow all men and women the opportunity to become fighter pilots if they had the “right stuff,” but continued to create cockpits designed for the average pilot. The Air Force would have rejected Kim Campbell, not because she lacked the talent to be a world-class pilot, but because she didn’t fit inside an average cockpit. It would be difficult to argue that this is equal opportunity.

Equal access is an averagarian solution to an averagarian problem. For generations, people have been discriminated against because of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class. Our response to such discrimination has been to try to balance the scales of opportunity—on average. If we see that the Average Man of one group is receiving different access to educational, professional, legal, and medical experiences than the Average Man of another group, then averagarian thinking suggests that the fair thing to do is to try to make those two Average Men as similar as possible. This was the right thing to do in the Age of Average—because it was the best we could do to address unfairness in a standardized world.

But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person, then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.14

Equal fit may seem like a novel idea, but it is ultimately the same view of opportunity expressed by Abraham Lincoln, when he declared that government’s “leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”15 Equal fit is an ideal that can bring our institutions into closer alignment with our values, and give each of us the chance to become the very best we can be, and to pursue a life of excellence, as we define it.

The good news is that we have it within our power, right now, to implement equal fit as a new foundation for equal opportunity in society. We no longer need to compel people to conform to the same inflexible standardized system, because we have the science and technology to build institutions that are responsive to individuality. But this transformation from an Age of Average to an Age of Individuals will not happen automatically. We must demand it.

If we are looking for the institution where implementing equal fit would have the biggest immediate impact on opportunity, the place to start is clear: public education. Despite the fact that “personalized learning” is the biggest buzzword in education today, and despite efforts of many organizations seeking change in the system, almost everything in traditional educational systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience. Textbooks are designed to be “age appropriate,” which means they are targeted toward the average student of a given age. Many assessments (including many so-called high-stakes tests) are age or grade normed, which means they are based around the average student of that age or grade.16 We continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, at what pace, and in what order they learn it. In other words, whatever else we may say, traditional public education systems violate the principles of individuality.

Although it would not be easy, it’s not difficult to imagine how to introduce equal fit into education. For starters, we can require that textbooks be designed “to the edges” rather than to the average; we can require that curricular materials be adaptive to individual ability and pacing rather than fixed based on grade or age; we can require that educational assessments be built to measure individual learning and development rather than simply ranking students against one another. Finally, we can encourage local experimentation and sharing of successes and failures to accelerate discovery and adoption of cost-effective, scalable ways to implement student-driven, self-paced, multipathway educational experiences.

We can also apply the principle of equal fit to social policies that influence the workplace, such as policies that influence hiring, firing, and pay. Imagine the talent that we can unleash by redesigning our schools and jobs to fit the individual, instead of fitting the averagarian system—even if that averagarian system is motivated by the best of intentions. We would unleash a society of Kim Campbells—a society of individual excellence.


James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, which he published in the depths of the Great Depression. Adams argued for a view of the American dream that ran counter to the materialism of his time: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”17

The original formulation of the American dream was not about becoming rich or famous; it was about having the opportunity to live your life to its fullest potential, and being appreciated for who you are as an individual, not because of your type or rank. Though America was one of the first places where this was a possibility for many of its citizens, the dream is not limited to any one country or peoples; it is a universal dream that we all share. And this dream has been corrupted by averagarianism.

Adams originally coined his term in direct response to the growing influence of Taylorism and the efficiency movement, which valued the system, but had “no regard for the individuals to whom alone any system could mean anything.”18 For Adams, the Taylorist view of the world was not only altering the fabric of society, it was altering the way people viewed themselves and one another, the way they determined their priorities, the way they defined the meaning of success. As averagarianism reshaped the educational system and workplace, the American dream came to signify less about personal fulfillment and more about the notion that even the lowliest of citizens could climb to the topmost rungs of the economic ladder.

It is easy to see why this shift in values occurred, and it is not nearly as straightforward as simple materialism. We all feel the weight of the one-dimensional thinking that has become so pervasive in our averagarian culture: a standardized educational system that ceaselessly sorts and ranks us; a workplace that hires us based on these educational rankings, then frequently imposes new rankings at every annual performance review; a society that doles out rewards, esteem, and adoration according to our professional ranking. When we look up at these artificial, arbitrary, and meaningless rungs that we are expected to climb, we worry that we might not fully ascend them, that we will be denied those opportunities that are only afforded to those who muscle their way up the one-dimensional ladder.

We worry that if we, or our children, are labeled “different” we will have no chance of succeeding in school and will be destined to a life on the lower rungs. We worry that if we do not attend a top-tier school and earn a high GPA, the employers we want to work for may not even look at us. We worry that if we answer a personality test in the wrong way, we may not get the job we want. We live in a world that demands we be the same as everyone else, only better, and reduces the American dream to a narrow yearning to be relatively better than the people around us, rather than the best version of ourselves.

The principles of individuality present a way to restore the meaning of the American dream—and, even better, the chance for everyone to attain it. If we overcome the barriers of one-dimensional thinking, essentialist thinking, and normative thinking, if we demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success—not in terms of our deviation from average, but on the terms we set for ourselves.

We are not talking about a future utopia; we are talking about a practical reality that is already happening all around us today. Our health-care system is moving toward personalized medicine, with the goal of equal fit for every patient. Competency-based credentialing is being tried out—successfully—at leading universities. Context-based hiring is already here and being spearheaded by pioneers like Lou Adler. Enterprises that have committed themselves to valuing the individual are achieving global success, like Costco, Zoho, and Morning Star. These are the places that provide us with a glimpse of what equal fit will actually look like. It’s time for all institutions to embrace individuality and adopt equal fit as the necessary credo to restore the dream.

The ideal that we call the American dream is one we all share—the dream of becoming the best we can be, on our own terms, of living a life of excellence, as we define it. It’s a dream worth striving for. And while it will be difficult to achieve, it has never been closer to becoming a reality than it is right now. We no longer need to be limited by the constraints imposed on us by the Age of Average. We can break free of the tyranny of averagarianism by choosing to value individuality over conformity to the system. We have a bright future before us, and it begins where the average ends.