Recently, I have been exposed to a lot of readings and learnings about ‘the average’. This really came home to roost (no pun intended) a few nights ago when my 5-year old son was reading to me. This particular book poses the question, “Are you a [insert animal]?” and wanders through several different animals (a chicken upside-down being one of them) until it finally arrives at this: “You’re not, but wait. You must be you, now isn’t that great?”
Which made me think.
At what point in our lives do we cease to be ourselves and succumb to the imposition of average? It is easy to argue in favour of average as it has long been established as a benchmark to measure individual progress and subsequently, worth. But it causes untold amounts of stress, anxiety and lack of self-worth. And it starts when we are very young.
As babies, our development is determined against an average age for, among other things, sitting, standing, walking and talking. When babies don’t achieve those age-average milestones, the majority of parents immediately believe that something is wrong with their child. Parents who look for the reason their child walks later than the average often discover an early talent for critical thinking and drawing conclusions from the world around us. For example, a ‘late walker’ may have a brother or sister who tends to his or her every need which makes walking unnecessary; at least for the time being. Why have a dog and bark yourself? That is a smart deduction at such a tender age.
At school, it gets worse. We are repeatedly measured against a fluctuating average in examinations, tests and athletic performance. Those of us performing above average are rewarded with intense positive attention, those below average are reprimanded or written off, and those performing at the average are often passed over. Consider the repercussions on the self-esteem of children and the untold damage it does to their developing ambitions. It is easy to shine when you are the focal point of a teacher’s attention, but it is incredibly challenging to stick your head above the parapet when you believe your worth is negligable. Put another way, this measurement against the average becomes a self-fulfulling prophecy; those showered with attention shine and do well and those ignored or passed over do, well, okay-ish. What happens at school has an enormous impact on the rest of our lives and develops our expectations for how we can expect to be treated and what we can expect to achieve.
At work, the average continues to plague our self-esteem as performance reviews, salary increases and contributions are all weighed against an average. In the workplace, the average is often highly subjective with such things as ‘forced ranking’ still prevailing in many organizations. Just for the record, I never agreed with forced ranking and I still don’t. When you have a team of strong performers, you have a team of strong performers. Pitching them against each other to see who is highest of the highest performers is a useless, pointless and intensely damaging exercise; to the individuals, the team and the organization. An organization should be grateful for a team of high-performers. I once led a team of people I affectionately named the ‘Adams Family’, because they were all so odd (trust me, they would be the first to admit it). Yet it worked brilliantly. They won award upon award, both collectively and individually, they outsold everyone, and they taught me a huge amount about leveraging unique and individual talents for the greater good.
So why does all this matter anyway?
As a coach working with anxious, stressed and burned-out people, I so often hear incredibly successful, talented individuals flagellating themselves for failing to achieve an above average performance rating or pay increase, failing to achieve above average grades, or failing to see the average number of patients. I also hear people beat themselves up for not being married by a certain age, not having kids by a certain age and not being able to retire by a certain age. And all of this is because of a desire to meet or exceed this standard called ‘the average’. The average influences our expectations of who we should be, what we should achieve, and by when we should achieve it. But it is incredibly damaging. Not everyone can be average. That is an absolute impossibility. And I will go as far to say that, in fact, no-one is average. And I’m fine with that.
Numerically, yes, the average exists. But when applied to human beings — all of whom are individuals in their own right — the average ceases to be relevant and can often be damaging and dangerous. The average is the scourge of modern society and dismisses any possibility for uniqueness in the form of extra-ordinary skills, talents and gifts. The average breeds conformity, regularity and predictability. It makes us feel safe and justified. For some of us, it can make us feel superior and entitled and for others, inferior and demoralized. The average makes us lazy. And it can make us judgemental. Dismissing the averaging means effort. And that explains why the average is still alive and well. Dismissal of the average forces us to find what is unique in each and every person — including ourselves — and it makes us look for, appreciate and leverage hidden talents.
So, are you a chicken upside-down? Because if you are embrace your upside-down-ness, your quirkiness, your unusual, your out-of-the-ordinary. Parents, celebrate your kid’s milestones, whenever they happen. Teenagers, find your talents and use them; your life will be full and successful when you do. Teachers, please, find the magic in every one of your students. It is in there. And leaders, embrace the individuality of your employees, quirky as they may be, and enjoy the fact that you have so much diverse talent in your organization.
The world will never be changed by the average; it never has been. Change will only ever come about as a result of each and every individual using whatever is unique about him or herself. In a world of conformity to a common standard, we face a future of sameness. And I, for one, fear that.
Originally published at magazine.vunela.com