The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness - Todd Rose (2016)
Part II. THE PRINCIPLES OF INDIVIDUALITY
Chapter 6. WE ALL WALK THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
One of the most important milestones infants attain in life is standing on their own two feet. For parents, our child’s simple act of learning to walk gets bound up in all our hopes and dreams about her future, our yearning to be assured that she is going to be normal, healthy, and successful. As we watch our child struggle to pull herself across the floor and lift herself up, we anxiously compare her progress to the prescribed norms. We pay careful attention to whether she sat up at the right age and whether she crawls the right way. If our daughter lags behind a milestone, we fear it might signal a more serious problem, or worry that she will be burdened by her slow nature throughout her life.
My friend’s son recently began crawling in a seemingly unusual fashion: by lying on his side and dragging himself forward with his hands, his immobilized hips and legs sliding along the floor like a little merman. My friend whisked his son off to their doctor, fearing that this aberrant behavior suggested that his son’s legs—or, heaven forbid, his brain—had failed to develop correctly. We might chuckle knowingly at such an overreaction, but at the same time every parent understands. Many of us—not just my friend—instinctively regard deviation from the normal pathway as an unmistakable signal that something is wrong.
We have already seen how averagarian thinking dupes us into believing in “normal” brains, bodies, and personalities. But it also dupes us into believing in normal pathways—the idea that there is one right way to grow, learn, or attain our goals, whether that goal is as basic as learning to walk or as challenging as becoming a biochemist. This conviction stems from the third mental barrier of averagarianism: normative thinking.
The key assumption of normative thinking is that the right pathway is the one followed by the average person, or at least the average member of a particular group we hope to emulate, such as successful graduates or professionals. Just as we believe the countless pediatricians and scientists who have told us that there are ordained milestones for child development, for walking, talking, reading, and everything else.1
We owe our sense that there’s one right pathway in large part to Frederick Taylor, Edward Thorndike, and their disciples. Taylor laid the foundation for the idea of a standard career track within hierarchical organizations: the average person started as a manager trainee, then got promoted to manager, then department head, then vice president over a division, and so on. His management ideas and his belief that there was “one right way” to accomplish any task in the industrial process helped determine the duration of a workday and workweek—temporal norms originally designed to maximize factory efficiency but which today serve as nearly invisible pacesetters for all aspects of our personal and professional lives.2
Taylor’s standardization of factory time also inspired the inflexible pathways of our educational system developed and implemented by Thorndike and the educational Taylorists.3 Our schools still follow the same rigid march through time as they did a century ago, with fixed class durations, fixed school days, and fixed semesters, proceeding through the same unyielding sequence of “core” courses, all of which ensure that every (normal) student graduates from high school at the same age with, presumably, the same set of knowledge.
When you put together a normal educational path with a normal career path, you end up with a normal pathway through life. If you want to become an engineer, you must spend twelve years in school, then four years in college, then take a job as a junior engineer, then hopefully get promoted to senior engineer, project manager, department head, and VP of engineering. In my own profession of academia, the normal pathway is also ordained: school, college, graduate school, postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, department chair.
Our shared belief in normal pathways of achievement compels us to compare the progression of our own lives against these average-based benchmarks. The normal time it takes to reach a milestone (such as crawling) or a career goal (like running our own marketing agency) is embedded in our mind like an ever-present stopwatch. If our child starts crawling later than normal, or our former classmate makes director of marketing ahead of schedule, then we often feel like we (and our child) are falling behind.
If we hope to overcome the mental barrier of normative thinking, the first step is to see human pathways of development as they really are.
THE PATHWAYS PRINCIPLE
The act of walking is so universal and so deeply human that it seems almost self-evident that it must develop through a well-defined set of fixed stages—a normal pathway. For almost sixty years, leading researchers and medical institutions agreed, insisting that children crawl, stand, and walk according to a normal developmental timetable. These authorities endorsed a sequence of age-specific milestones that a “typical” child was expected to progress through, based on average ages obtained from large samples of children.4 The presumption that there must be a normal pathway to walking seemed so intuitive and obvious it was almost never challenged. But one person who did was a scientist named Karen Adolph.5
Adolph learned the importance of focusing on the individuality of children from her mentor Esther Thelen, the scientist who solved the mystery of the stepping reflex. Adolph has applied this same perspective to her pioneering work on infant development, including crawling. In one study, she and her colleagues tracked the development of twenty-eight infants from before they crawled until the day they walked, examining the data using the “analyze, then aggregate” method. Adolph discovered there is no such thing as a normal pathway to crawling. Instead, she found no less than twenty-five different pathways infants followed, each with its own unique movement patterns, and all of them eventually led to walking.6
The normal pathway dictated that children should follow certain stages (like rolling onto the belly or moving arms and legs in parallel motions) in a certain order. But Adolph found that some infants exhibited multiple stages simultaneously, or went back and forth between stages, or simply skipped stages altogether.7 For example, though it was long believed that “belly-crawling” was an essential stage of crawling that infants passed through on their way to walking, almost half of the infants in Adolph’s study never belly-crawled at all.8
When I first came across Adolph’s research, I recalled how my own son walked before he crawled, provoking an irrational surge of pride—Look! My son is going to be an Olympic gymnast!—that abruptly turned to grave concern when, two months later, he “backtracked” into crawling. But Adolph’s research shows that our biology does not compel us to follow a predetermined blueprint. As she explained to me, “Every baby solves the problem of movement in her own unique way.”9
Even more provocative, it appears that not only are there many ways to learn to crawl, but also crawling itself may not be a universal and necessary step along the path to walking. The idea that crawling is an indispensable stage that precedes walking is a cultural artifact—the result of averaging together the behavior of a highly unusual sample of children: the children of industrialized Western society.
In 2004, anthropologist David Tracer was studying the aboriginal Au tribe in Papua New Guinea when he was struck by an odd revelation: even though he had been observing the Au for twenty years, he had never seen an Au baby crawl.10 Not one. They did, however, all go through what he called a “scoot phase,” where they would shuffle their bottom along the ground in an upright position. Tracer wondered why their pattern of motor development appeared so different from the normal pathway dictated by Western science.11
He decided to investigate further, following 113 infants from birth to thirty months of age, documenting their daily interactions with their caregivers as well as assessing them using standardized tests of infant motor development. He discovered that Au caregivers interacted with their babies in a fundamentally different way than Western caregivers. Au babies were carried upright in a sling nearly 75 percent of the time, and in those rare instances where infants were on the ground their caregivers did not permit them to lie facedown. There was a good reason for this restriction: the Au knew their babies would likely pick up fatal diseases and parasites if they made extensive contact with the ground.12
In the West, we take it for granted that the floor of our home is relatively free of dangerous germs, and so never question whether crawling is an essential stage in motor development. It is a powerful reminder that far too often we interpret average patterns of behavior as proof that something is innate and universal, when in fact the patterns might stem entirely from social customs that constrain what pathways are even possible in the first place.
Of course, it’s not that aberrant pathways don’t exist. There are developmental wrong turns and dead ends; on occasion, kids really do have medical issues that prevent them from moving properly and intervention is required. But these medical issues, like walking itself, are individualistic enough that they cannot easily be understood simply by comparing how far an infant deviates from average development.
Normative thinking—the belief there is one normal pathway—has fooled scientists in many fields, not just child development. Take, as an example, colon cancer, one of the most common and lethal forms of cancer in the world.13For several decades, it was assumed that a “standard pathway” dictated how colon cancer formed and progressed, a fixed bio-molecular sequence driven by the unfolding of specific genetic mutations.14 How did scientists derive this standard pathway? By averaging together findings from a wide variety of individual colon cancer patients.
The notion of a standard colon cancer pathway remained the consensus view among scientists until researchers, armed with more data and powerful methods, began focusing on individual patients instead of averages. They found, to their surprise, that the standard pathway only accounted for 7 percent of actual cases of colon cancer. Instead, researchers discovered there were multiple forms of colon cancer, each with its own developmental pathway—pathways that had been concealed by scientists’ belief that there must be a standard pathway.15 The recognition of multiple pathways has led to major breakthroughs in research and treatment, including earlier identification of the disease and the development of more effective drugs that target specific patterns of colon cancer.16
Normative thinking also permeates mental health. For a long time, clinicians who treated depression assumed that all patients in cognitive therapy (a common form of psychotherapy) followed a standard pathway to recovery, a pathway obtained from the average of many patients’ recovery experiences. According to the standard pathway, patients showed a quick reduction in symptoms, followed by slow gains the rest of the way.17 This standard pathway is widely used to benchmark progress for patients treated with this approach. However, in 2013, a team of researchers who were focused on studying individual recovery outcomes instead of average outcomes discovered that the average recovery pathway only applied to 30 percent of patients. They also found two alternative pathways to recovery: in one, patients made slow linear progress; in the other, patients showed a dramatic onetime drop in symptoms, then made little recovery after that. It turns out there was nothing optimal or even “normal” about the average recovery pathway.18
The fact that there is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development—biological, mental, moral, or professional—forms the basis of the third principle of individuality, the pathways principle. This principle makes two important affirmations. First, in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and, second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.
The first point is rooted in a powerful concept from the mathematics of complex systems called equifinality.19 According to equifinality, in any multidimensional system that involves changes over time—like a person interacting with the world—there are always multiple ways to get from point A to point B. The second point is derived from the science of the individual, which tells us that, because of the jaggedness and context principles, individuals vary naturally in the pace of their progress, and the sequences they take to reach an outcome.20 It is in understanding the why that we discover how to leverage the pathways principle to work for us as individuals and as a society.
THE PACE OF EXCELLENCE
If you believe only one pathway exists to achieve your goal, then all there is to evaluate your progress with is how much faster or slower you hit each milestone compared to the norm. Consequently, we bestow tremendous meaning on the pace of personal growth, learning, and development, equating faster with better. Terms like “whiz kid” or “quick study” reflect our cultural faith that faster means smarter. If two students earn the same grade on a test, but one student finished in half the time, we assume the faster student is the more gifted one. And if a student should need extra time to complete an assignment or to finish a test, the presumption is that he is not particularly bright.
The assumption that faster equals smarter was introduced into our educational system by Edward Thorndike. He believed that the pace at which students learned material was correlated with their ability to retain it, which in turn was correlated with academic and professional success. Or, in his words, “it is the quick learners who are the good retainers.”21 He explained this purported correlation by arguing that differences in learning were a result of differences in a brain’s ability to form connections.22
Thorndike recommended standardizing time for classes, homework, and tests based on how long it took the average student to complete a task as a way to efficiently rank students. Since he equated faster-than-average with smarter-than-average, he presumed the smart students would perform well when given an average allotment of time. On the other hand, since he presumed the dull-witted students would not perform much better no matter how much time you gave them, there was no point in offering more than an average allotment of time, especially since it would only hold back the bright students.23 Even today, we remain reluctant to grant students extra time to complete tests or assignments, believing that it is somehow unfair—that if they are not fast enough to finish these tasks in the allotted time, they should be appropriately penalized in the educational rankings.24
But what if Thorndike was wrong? If speed and learning ability are not related, it would mean that we have created an educational system that is profoundly unfair, one that favors those students who happen to be fast, while penalizing students who are just as smart, yet learn at a slower pace. If we knew that speed and learning ability were not related, we would, I hope, go to great lengths to provide students with as much time as they needed to learn new material and complete their assignments and tests. We would evaluate students based on the quality of their outcomes, not the quickness of their pace. We would not rank students based on how they performed on a high-stakes test that must be finished in a fixed amount of time.
The fundamental nature of educational opportunity in our society hinges on the question of how speed and ability are related—and it turns out that we have known the answer for the past thirty years thanks to the pioneering research of one of the most famous educational scholars of the twentieth century, Benjamin Bloom.25
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scholars and politicians in the United States debated whether schools could narrow achievement differences, or whether these were mostly due to factors outside the schools’ control, such as poverty. Bloom, then a professor at the University of Chicago, was convinced that schools mattered. He believed the reason many students struggled in school had nothing to do with differences in the capacity to learn, and everything to do with artificial constraints imposed on the education process, especially fixed-pace group instruction—when a curriculum planner determines the pace at which the whole class should be learning the material.26 Bloom argued that if you removed this constraint, student performance would improve. To test this hypothesis, he designed a series of experiments to determine what would happen if students were allowed to learn at their own pace.
Bloom and his colleagues randomly assigned students to two groups.27 All students were taught a subject they had not learned before, such as probability theory. The first group—the “fixed-pace group”—was taught the material in the traditional manner: in a classroom during fixed periods of instruction. The second group—the “self-paced group”—was taught the same material and given the same total amount of instruction time, but they were provided with a tutor who allowed them to move through the material at their own pace, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, taking as much or as little time as they needed to learn each new concept.28
When Bloom compared the performance of students in each group, the results were astounding. Students in the traditional classroom performed exactly like you would expect if you believed in the notion that faster equals smarter: by the end of the course, roughly 20 percent achieved mastery of the material (which Bloom defined as scoring 85 percent or higher on a final exam), a similarly small percentage did very poorly, while the majority of students scored somewhere in the middle. In contrast, more than 90 percent of the self-paced students achieved mastery.29
Bloom showed that when students were allowed a little flexibility in the pace of their learning, the vast majority of students ended up performing extremely well. Bloom’s data also revealed that students’ individual pace varied depending on exactly what they were learning. One student might breeze through material on fractions, for instance, but grind through material on decimals; another student might fly through decimals, but take extra time for fractions. There was no such thing as a “fast” learner or a “slow” learner. These two insights—that speed does not equal ability, and that there are no universally fast or slow learners—had actually been recognized several decades before Bloom’s pioneering study, and have been replicated many times since, using different students and different content, but always producing similar results.30 Equating learning speed with learning ability is irrefutably wrong.
Of course, the conclusion that logically follows from this is both obvious and terrible: by demanding that our students learn at one fixed pace, we are artificially impairing the ability of many to learn and succeed. What one person can learn, most people can learn if they are allowed to adjust their pacing. Yet the architecture of our education system is simply not designed to accommodate such individuality, and it therefore fails to nurture the potential and talent of all its students.
Of course, it is one thing to recognize a problem, and another thing entirely to fix it. In the 1980s, when Bloom conducted his research, he acknowledged that it would be prohibitively complex and expensive to convert our fixed-pace standardized education system into a flexible-paced one.31 But the ’80s have passed. We live in an era where new, affordable technology can make self-paced learning an accessible reality.
Khan Academy is a nonprofit educational organization that provides, in the words of its website, “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”32 Today, Khan Academy boasts over ten million users around the world and consists of an extensive set of online modules covering just about any academic subject imaginable, from ancient history to macroeconomics.33 Perhaps the most notable thing about Khan’s modules (besides their zero cost), is the fact that they are entirely self-paced: the software adapts to each student’s pace of learning and only proceeds to a new set of material when the student has mastered the present set.34
Since Khan records data on each student’s progress, it is possible to track the individual learning pathway of each student who uses the modules. The data confirm precisely what Bloom first discovered more than thirty years ago: every student follows a unique pathway that unfolds at his or her own highly individualized pace. The data also confirm that the pace at which any given student learns is not uniform: we all learn some things quickly and other things slowly, even within a single subject.35
In his widely viewed 2011 TED talk, Khan spoke eloquently about the relationship between pace and learning: “In a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment [of student performance after a fixed period of time], you say, oh, these are the gifted kids, these are the slow kids. Maybe they should be tracked differently. Maybe we should put them in different classes. But when you let every student work at their own pace … the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we’re seeing this over and over again. It makes you really wonder how much all of the labels a lot of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.”36
Why should we care if it takes a child two weeks or four weeks to learn to solve quadratic equations, as long as she can solve them? Why should we care if it takes a dental student one year or two years to learn to perform a root canal, as long as he or she can perform it flawlessly? There are already many domains in life where we do not particularly care how long it takes someone to achieve mastery—we only care that they have mastered it. Driving, for instance. A driver’s license does not record how many times you failed the written driving exam, or the age when you finally obtained it. As long as you passed the driving exam, you are allowed to drive. The bar exam is another familiar example: obtaining your license to practice law does not depend on how long it took you to pass the exam, only that you passed.
If every student learns at a different pace, and if individual students learn at different paces at different times and for different material, then the idea that we should expect every student to learn at a fixed pace is irredeemably flawed. Think about it: Were you really not good at math or science? Or was the classroom just not aligned to your learning pace?
WEBS OF DEVELOPMENT
It’s not too hard to believe that everyone develops at a different pace, or even that we each progress at different paces in different domains. What can be much harder to accept is the second assertion of the pathways principle: there are no universally fixed sequences in human development—no set of stages everyone must pass through to grow, learn, or achieve goals. The idea of normative stages gained widespread public support in the early twentieth century because of the work of a pioneer in infant studies, an American psychologist and pediatrician named Arnold Gesell.37
Gesell believed that evolution designed the human brain to unfold in a certain sequence determined by biological maturation, so that the mind had to learn and adjust to specific things about the world before it could proceed to more advanced stages, with each new stage serving as an essential foundation for the next.38 Gesell was the first scientist to track the development of large numbers of infants and the first to use the average of their development to describe fixed milestones that he believed represented the normal progression of a typical child.39
Gesell found average-based stages everywhere he looked: for example, he identified 22 stages in the development of crawling, including “lifting the head and chest off the ground, pivoting in circles, pulling forward with the abdomen dragging along the ground, hopping forward with the belly alternately on and off the ground, rhythmical rocking on hands and knees, crawling on hands and knees, creeping on hands and feet.”40 He claimed to have identified 58 stages of behavior when playing with a pellet (twenty-eight-week-old toddlers place an open hand over a pellet, according to Gesell, while forty-four-week-old toddlers hold it tightly) and 53 stages of rattle-grasping behavior.41 He even coined the term “Terrible Twos” and the phrase “he’s just going through a stage.”42
Gesell set up a laboratory at Yale University where he tested babies and gave them “Gesell scores” indicating how their physical and mental development compared to the norm.43 If a child failed to progress through the proper sequence of stages, parents were often told (or left to assume) that something might be wrong with their child.44 These “Gesell scores” were also used as a basis for adoption: Gesell believed that he could improve the success of adoptions by matching smart babies with smart parents, and average babies with average parents.45 Many medical organizations, including the American Pediatrics Society, endorsed Gesell’s framework at the time,46 and today his ideas still form the basis for the “normal” ages for developmental milestones used in many pediatric guides and popular parenting books.47
Gesell and nearly a century of stage theorists have viewed development as a kind of immutable ladder, believing that from the moment of birth, we are each predestined to climb this same ladder rung by rung.48 But starting in the early 1980s, some researchers began to notice that many of the children in their studies did not conform to the prescribed sequences that were thought to be universal. Eventually, the discrepancies between individual development and these supposed normal pathways became so obvious that it created what came to be known as “the crisis of variability” in developmental science.49
To resolve this crisis, a new generation of scientists committed to understanding human individuality began to outline an alternative to the notion of developmental ladders. One of these researchers is psychologist Kurt Fischer, a pioneering figure in the science of the individual and the scientist who formally introduced me to its principles.50 He is also, I might add, my mentor. Throughout his career, Fischer has approached his research from an individual-first perspective51 and has brought the pathways principle to bear on a wide range of developmental issues, including one of my favorite examples: understanding how young children learn to read.
For decades, scientists and educators assumed that children learned to read single words according to a standard sequence of skills, such as learning the meaning of a word before learning to identify the letters of a word, which in turn occurs before learning to produce words that rhyme with a given word.52 This “standard” reading sequence was derived from group averages, and Fischer had a hunch this averagarian approach had led scientists and educators to overlook something important about the process of learning to read.53
To test this hunch, Fischer and a colleague analyzed the sequence of reading development in first-, second-, and third-graders. By focusing on the sequences of each individual student, instead of focusing on group averages, Fischer discovered there were actually three different sequences that children could progress through on their way to learning to read single words.54 One of these was indeed the “standard” path, and 60 percent of the children followed it. But another sequence, which included the same skills as the first but in a different order, was followed by 30 percent of the children who also learned to read just fine. A third sequence was followed by 10 percent of the children. However, unlike the other two, the children who followed this sequence ended up with significant reading problems. These children had been labeled as slow or disabled, but by recognizing that they were proceeding down a pathway known to be faulty, they could receive targeted forms of intervention and compensatory teaching, instead of being viewed as unintelligent or impaired.55
After his research undermined the notion of fixed sequences and helped resolve the crisis of variability, Fischer offered a new metaphor for development that he felt would allow people to break free of the old averagarian one. “There are no ladders,” Fischer once told me. “Instead, each one of us has our own web of development, where each new step we take opens up a whole range of new possibilities that unfold according to our own individuality.”56
The pathways principle assures us that just as there are no fixed ladders of development in reading, there are no fixed ladders of development for any other aspect of our lives, including our careers. Consider what it takes to become an accomplished scientist. In academic circles, there is usually an implicit assumption about the standard sequence for success: get through graduate school, get a permanent position at a university or research institute immediately after your Ph.D., and then get a series of rapid promotions and increasingly larger research grants. But in 2011, the European Research Council (ERC), worried about the potential negative effects of “normative bias” on the development of young female scientists, decided to find out whether there really was such a thing as a standard pathway for a scientific career of excellence.57
To answer this question the ERC funded a study, headed by Dr. Claartje Vinkenburg at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, to examine the career pathways of successful and unsuccessful applicants for two prestigious research grants. Rather than finding a standard pathway for successful scientists, Vinkenburg discovered seven distinct sequences, each of which led to career success.58
Vinkenburg whimsically named each sequence after a dance. The “Quickstep” and “Foxtrot” corresponded to the conventional notion of a successful career (rapid promotions in a university or research institute), and about 55 percent of scientists achieved success that way. On the other hand, the “Viennese Waltz” and “Jive” pathways consisted of slow but steady progression, with the “Waltz” reaching an academic ceiling without enough time left on the career clock to complete another move. The “Slow Waltz” featured an extended series of postdoc positions. The “Tango” was the most complicated pathway of them all, featuring a series of movements in and out of science, including periods of unemployment. Scientists who performed the Tango were traditionally viewed as ordinary or weak scientists, yet the ERC research showed that they, too, attained scientific excellence.59
“It’s important to realize that excellence is in every pattern. There’s not one way,” Vinkenburg told Science Careers magazine. “You can have an excellent research idea while taking care of seven kids or looking after a sick parent—or being in the lab 24 hours a day. It shouldn’t matter how you got there.”60
So often we imagine that a pathway to a particular goal—whether it’s learning to read, becoming a top athlete, or running a company—is somewhere out there, like a trail through a forest cleared by the hikers that came before us. We presume the best way to be successful in life is to follow that well-blazed trail. But what the pathways principle tells us is that we are always creating our own pathway for the first time, inventing it as we go along, since every decision we make—or every event we experience—changes the possibilities available to us. This is true whether we are learning how to crawl or learning how to design a marketing campaign.
It can be frightening to contemplate this fact, because it suggests that familiar guideposts may actually hinder more than help—and if we cannot depend on familiar guideposts, what can we rely on to know how we’re doing? That’s why the pathways principle works best if we’ve already spent the effort understanding our jagged profiles and our if-then signatures, because the only way to judge if we are on the right path is by judging how the path fits our individuality.
TAKING THE UNCHARTED ROAD TO SUCCESS
When, several years after I flunked out of high school, I finally began college at Weber State, I got plenty of advice about the normal pathway for college success. Before my first day of classes, I sat down with my academic adviser—assigned to me because he handled those students whose last names started with the letters between Q and Z—so he could review what courses I should take each semester. I took out my pad and pencil and eagerly began writing down everything he said, thinking to myself, He knows the system here and his job is to figure out what’s best for me. He looked over my high school record, thumbed his beard, and declared, “Given your history of poor academic performance, it makes the most sense if you take all your courses in the usual order. Since you need to pass the remedial math class, take it right now to get it out of the way, and make sure to take the freshman English class during your first semester.”
I was grateful for what I presumed was highly personalized advice. A few hours later, I bumped into another freshman who shared the same adviser. Her background was quite different from mine—she was a well-mannered student from a major high school in Salt Lake City who graduated with an A average. We compared notes … and I discovered that my adviser had given her the same recommendations he had given to me—minus the remedial math, of course.
After I got over a surge of annoyance, I thought about my situation more carefully. The normal pathway had not worked out for me in high school, so why in the world should I expect it to work for me in college? I did not blame my adviser—it couldn’t be easy to dole out customized advice to hundreds of confused freshman over a period of a few days—but I did make a conscious decision to never blindly accept what he or anyone else told me was the proper educational path to follow. Instead, I would forge my own path based on whatever I knew about my strengths and weaknesses.
First up: remedial math class. Should I take it? No way. Remedial math has one of the highest fail rates in colleges across the country.61 I knew if I sat in a long, boring math class, I would almost certainly fail, too. I researched alternatives and found out I could skip remedial math if I passed a onetime math test called the CLEP.62 I knew I could study really hard for the test at my own pace and in my own way, and so for a whole year in my spare time I practiced the specific concepts that would be on the test and ended up doing so well on the CLEP test that I was able to skip every math class up to statistics—which turned out to be one of my favorite classes in college. I even became a teaching assistant for a statistics professor.
I also postponed freshman English until my senior year, because I knew I would find it boring and would probably not do too well if I took it right away. (I was right: it ended up being one of my dullest classes at Weber, but by the time I finally took it, I had built up my study skills and was able to grind through it.) I didn’t stop there—I rearranged the sequence of my entire four-year schedule so that I took the most interesting courses in my first two years. One of those was an advanced course on plagues that required several prerequisites I didn’t have, but I took it anyway because it seemed like it would hold my attention. It did.
As a freshman, I didn’t even consider the school’s honor program, and not just because I was a high school dropout. I was sure that honors classes meant extra work, and since I still had to hold down a job to support my wife and two sons, I did everything I could to avoid extra work. When I was a sophomore, however, a friend of mine who was an honors student casually mentioned to me that all they did in class was sit around arguing about ideas. He said this as a half-hearted complaint, but I immediately perked up: sitting around arguing instead of listening to long, dry lectures? How do I sign up? I persuaded the honors program director to admit me (not an easy task, given my dismal high school record and mediocre standardized test scores), and I quickly discovered that my friend was right: honors classes were all essays and discussions instead of the rote memory of facts. It was a perfect fit for me.
I am often asked how I turned things around so dramatically in college. I left high school with a D- average, but I graduated from Weber with straight A’s. If you asked me right after I graduated, I would probably have said hard work, trial and error, and a little bit of luck. That’s still true, but in the years since then I have thought about it more carefully, especially to figure out how I might use the elements of my own success to help other students who feel like they don’t fit in. When I consider the decisions I made that contributed to my college success, every one of them was rooted in the belief that a path to excellence was available to me, but I was the only one who would be able to figure out what that path looked like. And to do that, I knew that I needed to know who I was first.
My decisions also demonstrate how the jaggedness principle, context principle, and pathways principle ultimately all work hand in hand. To choose the right path for me—selecting the sequence of classes to take, for example—I had to know my own jaggedness (such as my low tolerance for boredom, as well as my ability to focus with laser intensity on those things that did manage to captivate me), and I had to know about the contexts where I would be performing (avoiding classes with kids I knew from high school, and seeking classes that focused on arguments and ideas). By knowing my jagged profile and my if-then signatures, I was able to choose a unique pathway that suited me best.
When you hear my story, you might think I am a special case. But that is really the whole point of the principles of individuality: we are all special cases. Once you understand these principles, you can exert better control over your life because you will see yourself as you really are, not as the average says you should be. I am not saying there are a million paths that will get you to where you want to go—designing a killer app, becoming a showrunner for a hit drama, starting your own company. But I am saying that there will always be more than one pathway available to you and that odds are the best one for you will be the one less traveled. So brave new paths and try unexplored directions—they are more likely to lead to success than following the average pathway.