A Science of Nobody

For the past 150 years, we have used averages to understand individuals. The assumption has been that either the average itself represents everyone, or else it is your deviation from average that defines you. Today, the average determines how we study individuals, the way that we design institutions, and how we measure potential and performance. There is just one problem with this approach: it is fundamentally wrong.

It has been scientifically and mathematically shown that averages rarely tell you about individuals: At best they represent a small percentage of people; at worst, they are artifacts that literally represent nobody. The fallacy of the average is not limited to any one area; it has been shown in areas as diverse as cell biology, genetics, neuroscience, psychology, and education. The simple fact is that if our goal is to understand individuals, averages will not work.

Principles of individuality

Fortunately, there is a powerful new science of the individual that offers a radically different view of human beings. Ignoring averages, this science focuses on understanding individual variability: the patterned ways individuals vary across dimensions, contexts, and time. The science of the individual has already fueled breakthrough discoveries in fields ranging from genomics, neuroscience, cancer, and nutrition; discoveries that were completely invisible to research that relied on averages to understand individuals.

For our institution of opportunities, from education to the workplace, the science offers a set of intuitive principles--jaggedness, context, and pathways--that moves us past our one-size-fits-all approach to understanding and nurturing human potential. 

Jaggedness. Human qualities, including body size, intelligence, talent, and character, are multi-dimensional and cannot be reduced to a single score or category.

Context. Behavior always depend on the interaction of the person and the situation; it is meaningless to evaluate performance independent of the immediate context.

Pathways. People naturally differ in the pace and sequence of their learning and development, and there is always more than one pathway to a successful outcome.

At the Center for Individual Opportunity, we believe that these principles are key to transforming institutions in ways that nurture potential, expand talent, and ensure the promise of opportunity in modern society.