Debate Magazine

“Average” is a Concept That No Longer Exists (from the Archives)

Posted on the 22 March 2011 by Stevemiranda

I once had an exchange with a friend in which I suggested that I don’t believe in “playing the game” and settling for mediocrity. A friend responded, “Remember, mediocre isn’t a negative thing, it simply means average.”

I disagree. I don’t think “mediocre” means average, because I don’t think there is such a thing as “average” any more.

Average assumes that the bell curve exists. The bell curve means there are a few A students, while most of us hang out in the middle of the pack getting B’s and C’s, and then there is a small percentage of the population that gets D’s and F’s.

But Chris Anderson’s concept of The Long Tail tells us that society is changing, and the bell curve is becoming obsolete. The Long Tail refers to the business strategy of companies like Netflix and, where a huge percentage of their revenue is derived not from the bestsellers, but from millions of obscure titles that appeal to niche audiences.

Malcolm Gladwell has an awesome TED talk about this same concept. He profiled a man named Howard Moscowitz, who revolutionized the food services industry by recognizing that there is no such thing as “average” spaghetti sauce. There are some people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy, some who like it chunky, or cheesy, or plain, or dozens of other ways. Go to any big supermarket, Gladwell says, and you’ll find 36 different flavors of Ragu. This same supermarket will also have on the shelf Pepsi, Caffeine Free Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Pepsi Max Cease Fire, and 10 other varieties. Moscowitz’s famous line is, “There is no such thing as the perfect Pepsi. There are only perfect Pepsis.”

Schools are missing this revolution. We no longer live in a world in which kids fit neatly into a bell curve. Here’s a concept I like to borrow from Sir Ken Robinson, from his cool book, The Element: We used to ask, How intelligent are you?

Now we ask, How are you intelligent?

So for me, “mediocre” doesn’t mean average. I believe that everyone is a genius in their own way, which makes being average impossible. “Mediocre,” then, is a much more nefarious concept. It represents a refusal to share one’s genius with the world.

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