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“Dear Applicant or Current Resident”: A Manifesto for the Average in a Tail-Loving Age

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.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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