Years ago, when my friends and I were applying for competitive fellowships, awards, and school admissions, we had a macabre joke that there were times when we must have been so unmemorable to the gatekeepers that they might as well have sent us reject letters that began, “Dear Applicant or Current Resident.”
A Facebook friend commented the other day on how frustrated and hopeless she feels after reading a steady diet of books on outliers, geniuses, exceptions, and the gaudily above-average.
What’s wrong with the middle, she asked.
The interesting, stubborn reality about the average is that however boring or insufficient we might find it, most of us are it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the average. There’s no way around that.
And all of us are average in at least some of the thousands of characteristics subjected to statistical portraiture.
There may even be someone in this country who manages to be average in every single metric devised, from broccoli consumption to income to number of calls annually to customer services lines to number of children. She would be the statistically perfect American—and thus, a genius outlier as the perfect mean.
Of course, there’s one place where we revere the middle: in political rhetoric that worships the middle class. It’s not clear precisely what middle-class means, but it’s the place to be. Every politician fights for the “regular middle-class family.” Conspicuous economic tails of wealth and poverty only create political awkwardness and difficulty.
Despite the roomy, clamorous world of the average, we revere outliers. Self-help books urge the average to become outliers. Why can’t you be more like a genius, the subtext seems to tell us. Go from Good to Great, a hugely successful book promises. Think about “highly improbable” phenomena, such as The Black Swan. You can’t even have average sex. Instead, you’re advised to “make love like a porn star.”
I wouldn’t cite a porn “star” as a tail event on the bell curve of erotic experience but, clearly, the advice sees her that way and prods us to her outstanding sexual achievements.
The frantic exhortation that the average become exceptional has seeped into the groundwater of parenting. Parents anxiously fear that the achievement of merely good outcomes now requires exceptional grades (or, a less charitable interpretation that I’ve also heard, maybe they’re just vain, and over-invested in their children’s successes). So they put themselves on a track and keep running, in the hope that they can deliver their child to the promised land of The Tail. For many of them it’s more like a treadmill. They’ll run and run but get no closer to the outlier world, or outpace the mean.
De facto, the tail can’t be normalized. True, we can nudge and cajole average people toward tail-like competencies in certain areas. Based on the latest international assessment, for example, we can try to push the average U.S. mathematics achievement closer to top-performing Singapore. Of course, if all nations succeed and move performance higher, then the average and the distributions change, too.
If “great” becomes the new good, then “astonishing” becomes the new exception. We’ll have books about how to go from Great to Astonishing and, eventually, from Astonishing to Superbly Awesome.
If black swans were to become commonplace, then black swans would just become swans, the familiar average.
When I was a graduate student at Yale, a dean sent a memo to teaching assistants that we should beware of “upward grade homogenization.” In other words, grade inflation. Myself, I’d already given out lots of Bs. I came from Swarthmore, where a C was a hard-fought, respectable grade. There was no shame in the middle of the pack, as the pack overall was a tough place. A T-shirt proclaimed, “Swarthmore: Anywhere else, it would have been an A. Really.”
Some of the students in my TA sections at Yale didn’t see Bs that way. They wanted their standard deviation lives to continue, and didn’t accept that, in a microcosm of all outliers, some would now have to be the average among them. With characteristic panache and good manners, one of my students even invited me out for a drink (“aren’t you just 19 years old?” I wanted to ask), to discuss this troubling grade like reasonable adults. I was confused, as I thought I’d given him a good grade.
Given the statistical inevitability of the average, this flight from the human mean, if not an outright loathing of the “mediocre,” feels like a subtle, collective form of self-loathing, or a collective inferiority complex.
Being a standard-issue human no longer elicits the same interest, fascination, or awe. Being a mundanely flawed and capable person with the capacity for regular—but nonetheless consequential, meaningful, and even inspired—moments and insights, across a range of different activities and relationships, is no longer enough.
Maybe we fear that being good-enough isn’t enough in a ruthless, if only dimly-understood, age of global competition.
More likely, the average isn’t average, but our perception makes it so. Our senses and appreciative feelings toward our fellow humans blunted, only the unusual elicit deep attention, awe, and excitement. I wonder if we apprehend or value the extraordinary in the ordinary life anymore.