Who Wants to be Normal Anyway?
Many years ago, when I was in high school, I was awful at math. Give me a book to digest or history to recount and explain and I was golden, but math never made sense. Fast-forward a few decades, and much of my world now uses words like average, mean, standard deviation, confidence intervals: statistics. So many statistics! And all of these terms are used to help us understand people—how they think and how they learn. The numbers can be useful for sure, but if we simply depend on them as our only means to understand someone, well, that’s not good; inevitably we miss some rather important stuff. And if we use them as a box—something we use to try to squeeze ourselves into—well that’s a slippery slope. And slippery slopes don’t usually end well unless you're in a bobsled.
We use the words "average" and "normal" as if they are interchangeable. We all want to be considered normal, right? To fit neatly into some imaginary form where all the normal people fit. We do whatever we can to try to cram ourselves into the norm. Because heaven forbid we don’t—or can’t—conform. But what is the cost of all these imperfect pegs trying to shove themselves into uniform holes?
History Proves There is no "Normal"
In the late 1920s, the United States Air Force was starting to realize the power of the skies. In order to be efficient in the building of a new force of planes, they took the measurements of hundreds of pilots. They looked at height, weight, arm length, shoulder width and so on. They created a cockpit with painstaking accuracy that reflected the simple mean of these pilots, or, in other words, the “average” pilot.
Fast-forward to the 1940s. The military was producing jets at a rapid pace and training pilots to fly those jets. But they had a problem on their hands: the planes kept crashing. In fact, on one day, 17 pilots went down. At first, the military blamed it on human error. There was, after all, nothing mechanically wrong with the planes. Finally, in 1950, researchers decided to take a closer look. They measured over 4000 pilots on 140 dimensions, including things like thumb length, inseam, the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear. Keeping in mind the cockpits of these planes were designed to fit the average pilot, the military was shocked to discover that none of the pilots they measured, not a single one, actually fit the average.
The "Average" Person is an Illusion
So, what does this little lesson in history mean to us? It means that "average" is a construct. An illusion. Average, and by extension, normal, doesn’t exist.
When the air force tried to make the pilots fit into cockpits designed for the average pilot, things went boom. Now, I understand how looking at averages can be useful. Child development specialists researched thousands of babies and children to come up with age-appropriate developmental milestones like when it is expected a child will sit up, or take his first steps. These help guide parents, who are crazy nervous anyway, to understand if their child is developing as one might expect. That’s a good use for averages.
But when humans try to fit into this societal construct, we do so at the expense of some part of ourselves that make us who we are. At Avon Old Farms, the New England private school for boys, if all we wanted to be was normal, former football captains would not be the ones winning poetry contests or awards for photography. We wouldn’t have hockey players getting nearly perfect ACT scores or baseball players amazing us on the stage.
Whatever it is that keeps you from fitting into that tiny box called "normal," my advice is to embrace that part of yourself. Own it. Foster it. Develop it.
As Theodate Pope Riddle, the Founder of Avon Old Farms, stated, "The ways in which people differ are more important than the ways in which they are alike." It is what makes us different that truly matters, and at a place like Avon, exploring that part is not only possible, it is what makes us all great.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Director of the Learning Center