When Todd Rose was 21 years old, he was a high-school dropout struggling to support his wife and two small children on state benefits. He had done 10 minimum-wage jobs in two years.
"My favourite job was administering enemas to elderly people, because this meant I was allowed to drive around, rather than being stuck behind a desk or stamping aluminium on the factory floor," he says. "My father-in-law told me I was lazy, and I can't blame him. If this was my daughter, I'd be the same."
Today, aged 41, he's a Harvard professor with a string of accolades to his name, still happily married, with both kids at college. "So I didn't mess them up," he says with a smile - and one hopes his relationship with his in-laws is less fraught these days.
One size does not fit all
Prof Rose is co-founder and president of the Centre for Individual Opportunity, and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And his groundbreaking new book, The End of Average, is set to be a key text within the science of the individual, a multi-disciplinary field drawing upon recent scientific and mathematical findings to demonstrate that it is simply not possible to draw meaningful conclusions about human beings using statistical averages.
"For more than a century, this average-size-fits-all model has ignored our individuality and failed to recognise talent," Rose says.
By designing the cockpit for the average man, they were designing jets for nobody.Todd Rose
The implications of abandoning averages are far-reaching, for children within the educational system, for employees and employers, and for our personal relationships.
It was a Belgian astronomer and statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, who invented the idea of the "average man" in 1835, characterised by the mean values of measured variables (physical and intellectual) that follow a normal distribution.
"When I say 'average doesn't exist', this is no bumper-sticker slogan," says Rose. "It is mathematical fact, with enormous practical implications."
The uncomfortable truth about conformity
Rose cites the example of the US Air Force, which in the 1950s began investigating why pilots were struggling to control their planes. It turned out not to be pilot error or poor training, but the way in which cockpits were designed: around the body shape of the "average" pilot of the 1920s. With the help of a Harvard College graduate named Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels, the airforce measured 4000 pilots on 10 dimensions of size - such as torso length and chest circumference - assuming that most pilots would be within the average range for most dimensions, and many would perfectly fit all 10.
The results were staggering: a grand total of zero pilots fitted this average size profile on all 10 counts. Even when just three dimensions were used, only 3.5 per cent of the pilots were "average". Instead, most had what Rose calls a "jagged profile", varying greatly on all dimensions.
"By designing the cockpit for the average man, they were designing jets for nobody," says Rose. The airforce responded by abandoning the idea of "designing-to-average" physical stature, demanding that manufacturers instead adopt design that was adjustable for extremes of size, fitting both the tallest or the shortest, and those with wide or narrow chests. This led to innovations we now take for granted, such as adjustable seats.
To Rose's mind, averages have failed us spectacularly - especially in our educational institutions. "We might not all need to fit into a cockpit, but we have had to fit into a classroom," he says. And we have yet to see the equivalent of adjustable seating within education. Students are grouped in classes based on chronological age; curriculums and Oxford textbooks are written to be "age-appropriate"; standardised assessments, such as SATs, GCSEs or IQ tests, are also based on a comparison to a hypothetical average student. We are addicted to averages, Rose says, "because it promises to simplify and quantify something complicated and unquantifiable: human potential".
Today, our entire education system is based on the average learner, when there is no such thing. "So schools fail at what they're supposed to do - recognise and nurture talent," says Rose.
He knows this first-hand. He grew up in Ogden, Utah, a rural part of America where, he says, "conformity was the most prized thing of all". By the age of eight, he was painfully aware that he didn't fit in. "You are never more judged than you are in school," says Rose. His behaviour wasn't particularly dramatic, "just a little hyperactive and a bit forgetful" but the bad report cards rolled in, he became isolated socially, and he hated school, eventually dropping out of high school. "I totally flunked," he says. He was left convinced that he was lazy, stupid and unteachable.
But when he left that 10th dead-end job at 21, he received some life-changing advice from his father, who had worked his way up from being a mechanic to a mechanical engineer. "He told me I wasn't lazy or stupid, I just needed a job that would interest me and where I'd thrive - but that he couldn't see this happening until I had an education," says Rose.
These words hit home, and he eventually enrolled at the local college, Weber State University, where he ignored the guidance counsellor's advice to take classes he'd failed at school, instead taking advanced classes in subjects that interested him, like economics. He kept a diary, noting the specific context in which he found learning challenging - variables such as a particular teacher, environment or skill set - and began to recognise patterns, gradually compiling his very own "jagged profile" as a learner. And it worked: Rose graduated as the top student of the class, with straight As, the honour student of the year.
Originally set on neurology, he found himself gripped by psychology - not least because he was only partially convinced by the studies that developmental psychology is built on.
The science of individuality
"Psychological studies all seemed to miss the important details that made me able to succeed," he explains. "That's when I became interested in the science of individuality." In 2001, Harvard had just created its mind, brain and education program, when Rose took his doctorate there. Today, he's director of it, and The End of Average is the culmination of years of research, as well as his personal experience of a system that failed him.
"Teachers and parents know that our public education systems aren't really working, and companies know that HR departments don't work in terms of finding talent," he says. The problem, according to Rose, is how we see human beings. "We need to realise that there is no such thing as an average human, and stop measuring ourselves according to arbitrary yardsticks with no real basis in human nature." The exciting development, for Rose, is that we now have the technology to facilitate more flexible learning and assessments in schools, such as translation apps or voice recognition technology.
But Rose isn't merely advocating a reform of our academic institutions and HR departments - he wants us to change how we see ourselves and the people we care about. "The tyranny of the average means that we allow ourselves to be stereotyped, striving to fit someone else's idea of who we should be," he says. "When we stop comparing ourselves to a non-existent 'average', the gates just open."
The End of Average by Todd Rose (Allen Lane) is published on January 26.
The Daily Telegraph