The Average does not exist!

Publish Date
Sep 27, 2021
Last Edit
Mar 23, 2022 12:51 AM
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This titular thought is a fun play on the line from Mean Girls, “The limit does not exist!” is by itself a very helpful meme: the ‘average’ person is a myth.
This idea comes courtesy of Todd Rose and his book, “The End of Average.” But with a goal of short thoughts, I’ll convey the helpful meme, and feel free to dive deeper and read the book.
Mr. Rose illustrates this with a tale from the US Air Force as they were designing a cockpit in the 1950’s. They took a fairly logical approach: grabbed 4,000 pilots and measured hundreds of dimensions and taking the average.
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Yet when one analyst looked across the ten most relevant measures, he realized that none of the 4,000 pilots measured fit within the average range (middle 30%) across all ten dimensions! And yet, this shouldn’t be surprising at all. Basic math would suggest that, if you are looking at 10 dimensions and considering 30% of the population to be average, only 1 in 170,000 people (0.3 ^ -10) would be average across all 10 criteria.
There’s a lot of lessons and implications that can be drawn from this, some of which are going to be more valid than others.
One obvious point to start is that representing any group or humanity as a whole by its average is at best an incomplete picture. Dare I share this chart from the infamous Google Memo to illustrate:
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On the business side, tailoring to your “average user/reader/customer” isn’t necessarily going to appeal to anyone. It may, but a product or offering is more likely to appeal to some subset with an extreme in at least one dimension. Hence the startup advice: “find your niche.”
Finally, straying a bit further, it is a bit more of a stretch but still safe to assume that most things have been over-optimized for the average. This has happened averages are both mathematically easy and psychologically easy. Our minds are more comfortable saying some thing or some one is ‘average’ than we are in classifying them as an outlier due to our cohesive and tribalistic instincts.