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Two Books: An Introduction, Part V

It's the Common, We Have in Common

Book One: My name is “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness” by Todd Rose. What is yours?

Book Two: My name is “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

Book One: I could say many places, but in short, all the places where we use false constructed narratives of worth. We assume, problematically, “the average represents the ideal, and the individual represents error” (65)

And you?

Book Two: I’m from the same place, one where our systems are supposedly built on truth, but that truth is myth. Tell me more about where you’re from.

Book One: “The rules are fairly straightforward. According to ergodic theory, you are allowed to use a group average to make predictions about individuals if two conditions are true: 1) every member of the group is identical and 2) every member of the group will remain the same in the future. If a particular group of entities fulfills these two conditions, the group is considered to be ‘ergodic,’ in which case it is fine to use the average behavior of the group to make predictions about an individual. . . Of course, you don’t need to be a scientist to see that people are not ergodic. . . This was why Molenaar called this assumption the ergodic switch: it takes something nonergodic and pretends it is ergodic. . .the lure of averagarianism dupes scientists, educators, business leaders, hiring managers, and physicians into believing they are learning something meaningful about an individual by comparing her to an average, when they are really ignoring everything important about her.” (63-64)

Book Two: Myth is a traditional story, but a story nonetheless. “With each generation, the specter of the founding zero sum has found its way back into the American story. It’s hard for me to stand here as a descendant of enslaved people and say that the zero sum wasn’t true, that the immiseration of people of color did not benefit white people. But I have to remind myself that it was true only in the sense that it is what happened—it didn’t have to happen that way. It would have been better for the sum of us if we’d had a different model. . .” (13-14) Myths, by definition are widely held but still false.

Book One: Exactly! I wrote an entire chapter entitled Traits are a Myth (99). The false ideas of innate traits create essentialist thinking, the idea that “defining characteristics will shine through no matter what the circumstances or task.” These are “both a consequence and a cause of typing” (101) And they were easy myths to codify as truths, because “. . . averagarianism was a perfect philosophy for the industrial age, an era when managers—whether in businesses or schools—needed an efficient way to sift through large numbers of people and put them in their proper slots in a standardized, stratified system.” (66)

Book Two: We cannot underestimate the dog whistle messages associated with economy, but we trace the deepest impact back to their origin and reimagining through race. For example, the ‘average’ voter first meant property owner. Then, it was changed to white man. “Universal white male suffrage redefined the meeting of human worth in a society with whipsawing economic vicissitudes: wage-earning, white men no longer needed to be wealthy to find esteem in the eyes of their society. They just needed to be white.” (142)

Book One: My theories support your questioning about the relationship to racism rooted in essentialist thinking. It is extended by the notion that “fit creates opportunity. . . During the Age of Average we have defined opportunity as ‘equal access’—as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences. Of course, equal access is undoubtedly preferable to older alternatives such as nepotism, cronyism, racism, misogyny, and classism. And there is no doubt that equal access has improved society immensely, creating a society that is more tolerant, respectful, and inclusive. But equal access suffers from one major shortcoming: it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.” (186)

“The original formulation of the American dream was not about becoming rich or famous; it was about having the opportunity to live your life to its fullest potential, and being appreciated for who you are as an individual, not because of your type or rank. Though America was one of the first places where this was a possibility for many of its citizens, the dream is not limited to any one country of peoples; it is a universal dream that we all share. And this dream has been corrupted by averagarianism.” (189)

Book Two: And the story of that system is why I’m here. “. . . popular stereotypes can help move unpopular ideas, including limiting democracy” (156)

Book One: It’s nice to meet you. I have also struggled to open up conversations around how truly see and hear what people are and what we need to do better together. We cannot define the complex (i.e. talent, smart, large) in one dimensional ways. This is jaggedness. “Of course, the blinders that are the most important to eliminate are the ones we use to look at ourselves.” (94) Tell me more about jaggedness can intersect to disrupt racism.

Book Two: In my work, I would replace your examples of talent, smart, large, with issues such as health, housing, justice, voting rights. I would ask us to question who is the ‘average’ fast food worker (130), hero (222), criminal (226)? “In a hierarchical system like the American economy, people often show more concern about their relative position in the hierarchy than their absolute status.” (125)

Book One: Wow, we have a lot in common! Your key concept of zero sum, that if someone else is more I must be less connects directly into the same feelings of falling behind or failing that are caused by normative thinking. “Many of us. . . instinctively regard deviation from the normal pathway as an unmistakable signal that something is wrong. . . This conviction stems from the third mental barrier of averagarianism: normative thinking. The key assumption of normative thinking is that the right pathway is the one followed by the average person, or at least the average member of a particular group we hope to emulate. . .” (124)

Book Two: We may speak varying dialects, but we are speaking the same language. In my research I also found this to be true. For example, I visited a failed union movement and saw up close the desire to be above and how it affects your actions on average. “. . .the white workers in Canton were still getting, or had the promise of getting, a better deal than someone.” (121) so they failed to act. I also see this in education. The questions, “Were they good schools? What about the standardized test scores, the yardstick by which all quality is measured?” (189) connect directly back to this idea that “smart” or “successful” has one definition and even that definition, the test, is built on a myth and does not include gains from opportunities to build relationships and new points of view.

Book One: I myself have been failed by the educational system. Beyond the way schools define their own success, they also define the capacity of others. For example, the notion students, especially particular students, can’t self-determine their educational pathways (178).

Book Two: That echoes of patriarchy. What else have you seen?

Book One: My research indicated this same challenge in the workplace as well, especially with perceived objectivity-ranked systems. They were adopted because it was “hard to imagine a more straightforward method for comparing employees’ value than assessing them on a simple, one-dimensional scale.” (78) The Zoho Corporation is attempting to redefine the best talent without particular thresholds of education or experience (154) But, I think Paul Green from the Morning Star Company said it best when he said, “All organizations are based upon fundamental assumptions about individuals, whether they know it or not.”

Book Two: And my research strives to increase the knowing and seeing aspects of yourself in others. Perhaps jaggedness is one way to build awareness.

Book One: I would emphasize the concept of “if-then” and context behavior (107-109). This means asking the question, “Why are they behaving that way in that context?” (120) We must see others as a combination of all of their contexts and remember that we are part of that context.

Book Two: There is definite power seeing yourself in others and your situation. This was evidenced by the changing relationship between big business and regulations for workers. When the managers used to identify with the frontline workers, they made particular choices. Now those demographics have changed between those in power and those who are not (31). This is carried over beyond business into society. For example, the negative messaging that comes out through the dog whistle labelled, fiscally conservative. If you struggle you deserve it, easily becomes characteristics of a stereotyped group labeled undeserving. This came out in my research for example that many whites believed Blacks take more than they give. This narrative then becomes the average cultural marketing (35)

I see the possibilities and intersections if we also center the moral question about who deserves and who doesn’t, what some call “The Hidden Wound”.

Book One: “We live in a world that demands we be the same as everyone else, only better, and reduces the American dream to a narrow yearning to be relatively better than the people around us, rather than the best version of ourselves. The principles of individuality present a way to restore the meaning of the American dream—and, even better, the chance for everyone to attain it.” (190)”

Book Two: And it must be everywhere, the air we breathe. Right now, we are willing to trade our own survival on the averages. “If a set of decision makers believes that an environmental burden can be shouldered by someone else to whom they don’t feel connected or accountable, they won’t think it’s worthwhile to minimize the burden, by for example, forcing industry to put controls on pollution. But that results in a system that creates more pollution than would exist if decision makers cared about everyone equally—and we’re talking about air, water, and soil, where it’s pretty hard to cordon off toxins completely to the so-called sacrifice zone. It’s elite’s blindness to the costs they pay that keeps pollution higher for everyone.” (213-214)

Book One: “If we overcome the barriers of one-dimensional thinking, essentialist thinking, and normative thinking, if we demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success. . .” (190-191)

Book Two: And it’s not zero-sum.


McGhee, Heather. (2021) The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can

Prosper Together. One World: New York.

Rose, Todd. (2015). The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness.

Harper Collins: New York.


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