Book Review: A Recruiter’s Perspective on “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness”

Jennifer ScalziPersonal branding

I picked up Todd Rose’s book “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness” because every day I see incredible potential in the professionals that venture outside the realm of average. In the right environment, those traits can flourish, but the opposite is also true and my job is to be able to tell the difference. When we focus too heavily on checking the boxes when making hiring decisions, what remarkable qualities do we miss out on if we don’t put individuals into context? Rose addresses where this notion of sameness began and what we gain when we challenge it.

The book begins with an anecdote set in World War 2 when planes were crashing but both the pilots and the plane manufacturers were denying responsibility. The U.S. Air Force set out to figure out what was going on. Turns out the manufacturers had built the cockpits according to the average pilot measurement, when in reality there are plenty of pilots with different length of legs and arms and torso sizes.  Because the cockpit was built for “average” many of the pilots had trouble reaching the peddles or the buttons and that was the reason planes were crashing. They commissioned the manufacturers to create movable seats. The very seats we all have in our cars today.

The stakes are not quite as high on a day-to-day basis, but there is much to be gained in our professional and presumably our personal lives if we make space for what is different among our colleagues instead of trying to hide it away.

I highly recommend reading the full text, but if it’s unrealistic to add yet another book to your reading list, below are the top ten concepts that left an impression on me:

  • Quetelet’s invention of the Average Man marked the beginning of the Age of Average.  It represented the moment when the average became normal, the individual became error.
  • We all feel the pressure to strive to rise as far above average as possible.  Much of the time, we don’t even think about what, exactly, we’re trying so hard to be above average at, because the why is so clear: we can only achieve success in the Age of Average if others do not view us as mediocre or – disaster! – as below average.
  • All of this leads to a profound question.[…]: If you have a society predicated upon the separation of system-conforming workers from system-defining managers, how does society decide who gets to be a worker and who gets to be a manager?
  • We have lost the dignity of our individuality.  Our uniqueness has become a burden, an obstacle, or a regrettable distraction on the road to success.
  • “We [Google] began to spend a lot of time and money analyzing the ‘missed’ talent that we felt w should have hired, but didn’t” Todd Carlisle, HR Director.  It turned out that SAT scores and the prestige of a candidate’s alma matter were not predictive of success at all.  “The real surprise for me and for a lot of people at Google was that when we analyzed the data, we couldn’t find a single variable that mattered for even most of the jobs at Google.  Not one.”
  • The problem is that when trying to measure talent, we frequently resort to the average, reducing our jagged talent to a single dimension like the score on a standardized test or grades or a job performance ranking. (Jaggedness Principle holds that we cannot apply one-dimensional thinking to understand something that is complex and “jagged” such as a person)
  • When it comes to finding the best person for the job, all the systems of our business world are set up to ignore context, and it starts with the most essential hiring tool of them all: the job description.  A typical job description for a director of marketing position might include a “key qualifications” or “required skills” section.  At first glance this seems common sense. Candidates either have skills or they don’t. Instead of focusing on the “essence” of the employee, the context principle suggests that a better starting point is to focus on the performance that we need the employee to perform and the context in which that performance will occur.
  • Lou Adler: matching individuals to optimal contexts= Performance-based hiring. Instead of describing the person they want, first describe the job they want done.
  • Fit creates opportunity (credit to Kim Campbell).  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 – where the environment is a cockpit, a classroom or a corner office – we will have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of.  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.

And finally…

  • “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.”