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Average is the new black
The L word

Average is the new black

by Sarita RAO 4 min. 30.10.2021 From our online archive
Two thirds of us have average intelligence and creativity so maybe we should embrace our middling qualities, argues columnist Sarita Rao
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Last week my children asked me if I’d ever come first in any subject at school. Nope, was my response. Had I ever got 90% or more in a test. Definitely not (I would have remembered that, kept the test, and had it framed). Had I ever come second, third, fourth or even fifth in my class? No.

As a child I was, quite simply, average. Not someone who could try harder - I was clearly doing my best - but someone whose results were middle of the road. Expectations from my family, my teachers, and myself, were that I’d be average at just about everything. After all, someone has to get the midpoint mark in class.

Yet the word “average” has so many negative connotations attached to it. It says “so-so” or “nothing special” or, worst of all, “mediocre”. There are billions of self-help books or inspirational posters with slogans about how to be more than just average.

More average than we admit

According to psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic from the University College London/Columbia University in an article he wrote for Psychology Today, about 65% of us have average intelligence, personality, memory, leadership potential and creativity. But there’s been a cultural shift since the 1950s in which we have come to believe that being average is bad. We need to stand out from the crowd, show that our opinions matter most, and aim to be perfect at what we do.

The professor points out that most people think of themselves as “above average”, yet some very average people have fooled themselves (and quite a few people around them) into thinking they are gifted, high-achievers, by making a lot of noise about their capabilities.

However, Luxembourg is fairly full with above-average people who aren’t self-deluded. Many are experts in their fields, fluent in several languages, and cherry picked for roles in finance, management consultancy, or the EU institutions. I rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have a master’s degree in something, and I’m guessing that most of these people did get 90% in their school tests.

Perhaps we are brainier today, and the bar for average is higher. The Flynn effect (that IQs have gone up generation after generation, in some countries quite exponentially), would suggest that we are getting brighter, which is why most parents think their children are gifted (they probably are when compared to our childhood selves).

Children are expected to be above average and aim high, because we've created a world where average equals bad
Children are expected to be above average and aim high, because we've created a world where average equals bad

Listening in on my daughter’s online English class during lockdown, you would have thought there was no such thing as average. The kids were asked to give short presentations about themselves and their future ambitions. In a class of sixteen 11-12-year-olds, six planned to go to MIT, four had designs on either Oxford or Harvard, and one had ambitions to go to the New York School of Performing Arts. Not many shrinking violets then, and by my calculations there had to be at least one Nobel prize winner on that call. 

But where does this leave the kids that get average scores in tests? The ones that aren’t MIT or Oxbridge material?

Given that average is still the majority of the population, shouldn’t we embrace it a bit more and stop worshipping the cult of best in class.

The misnomers of being average

To embrace it, we need to rid ourselves of the misnomers of being average. Average people don’t write books, they read them. Average people don’t create art, they appreciate it. Average people don’t build companies, they work as middle management or foot soldiers. Yep that sums me up, but don’t we need people reading books, appreciating art and doing those mediocre or mundane jobs?

So, I told my children that being average is just fine. Yes, I am secretly hoping they’ve inherited some family member’s brainy genes, but in the end, if they get average marks, that’s okay by me, because I was pretty average in my youth. Most parents want health and happiness for their children, regardless of their academic record or creative achievements.

So to all of you who have never come first, or got 90%, even 60%, in a test, you may not be gifted, athletic, creative or even good-looking (that last one is subjective), but being average never goes out of fashion. Someone will always be average, and it turns out there are quite a few of us if we constitute two thirds of the population. We just need to remind ourselves that we are the people who keep the world ticking over.  

(You can rate this column on a scale of 1-10. I’m expecting a 5). 

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