Education and the workforce: I think these two things go together in terms of human potential.
Growing up in rural Utah had a lot of benefits, but in an environment that prized conformity, fit wasn’t one of them. I ended up in my senior year with a 0.9 GPA, which I think you actually have to work pretty hard to get. In the exact same month they kicked me out of school, my girlfriend – still my wife today – told me she was pregnant. So, it was an interesting start to life: working 10 or 12 minimum-wage jobs; getting bored really quickly and quitting; having my in-laws – rightly – in full panic mode and thinking I had some kind of character flaw.
The Age of Average gave us a lot. Take clothing: We’ve all benefited remarkably from large, medium and small sizes making things affordable and available, but when it really counts – the wedding gown and the pressurized fighter pilot suit – it’s bespoke all the way.
Our biggest project is actually more in the social sciences, where we are studying mastery – how people get good at things – only we do it from an individuality perspective.
Historically, education has been about batch processing: standardize everything against the average, rank kids, sort them to see who gets more and who really doesn’t deserve to be there. The problem, even if you’re just being selfish from an economic standpoint, is we’re not producing the talent we need.
We’ve become so used to the concept as a measuring and sorting tool, that it and its correlates – below-average, above-average – are everyday speech. We don’t even question the language, although the challenges we face require a different mindset.
We need to develop people rather than process them.
When you start digging into things like character, though, the notion that people have high character or low character is very strong. What’s crazy is that my thinking is not a new insight. The very first large-scale study of character, still one of the largest ever, was done in the early 1900s by Hugh Hartshorne, an ordained minister and a scientist.
It’s fine to pretend that people are one-dimensional, like in body size; the problem comes when you forget that you are just pretending.
The whole idea of timing tests is a century old, from a scientist who thought speed and ability were tightly correlated, which they are not.
That was one of my most surprising discoveries when I dug into the history of average-ism: When you actually get the data, it rarely captures anyone. Which then begs the question, why are we using this as a reference standard for human beings?
I enrolled at a local college, but this time paid attention to myself – took only courses that really interested me, even if they weren’t in sequence; kept out of classes with people I knew from high school, because I tended to act like the class clown around them; selected teachers by their teaching style – until I could build up my study habits. I ended up graduating with a 3.97 GPA and got into Harvard for my doctorate.
Talent – really, everyone agrees, it’s multidimensional, and often overlooked in standard assessments. That’s not hard for people to accept.
We use the Air Force analogy: there were expensive things they had to do to get a cockpit suitable for a lot of pilots, like wraparound windshields, but their initial solutions, when they realized average didn’t work, were adjustable seats. How in the world did they not already have adjustable seats in their planes? We’re looking for adjustable seats for education, for basic things that we can do.
Character is incredibly jagged, and incredibly contextualized, even to the point where I still feel uncomfortable thinking about it.
I care deeply about opportunity and fairness, because I grew up really poor.
Right now, for instance, we resist giving people extra time on exams or for assignments, as though it’s unfair to the faster students.