How can Average be Above Average?

Ah, the word average.  It has become such a negative word in our society today.  Really, who wants to be “average”?  Whenever we respond to surveys, have to rank our direct reports,  or more so, ourselves and our efforts, we almost always say we are “above average.”  How can this be?  How can everyone be “above average”?

It all depends on context and the way we view and define “average.”  Since our earliest days of schooling, we have had it ingrained in our brains that “average” equals a “C” letter grade, or about 75% on an exam.  But, Webster defines average in several different ways:  “1) equaling an arithmetic mean 2) a) being about midway between extremes, b) not out of the ordinary”

So, continuing with the school theme, if I took the smartest kids in the class, the ones we would all agree are “above average” and gave them a test where the lowest grade was a 93, the highest a 100, and the average 96, the kids that scored 96 are “average” based on the results of the exam.  The poor kid that scored a 93 is “below average” based on his score.  Imagine telling a kid you are “below average” when you scored a 93 – a clear “A” by most grading systems.  Get an “A” and you’re “below average.”  Doesn’t seem right, but mathematically, it is accurate.   This explains how, whey you got a 43 on that Organic Chemistry exam, it became an “A” – the magic of the “bell” curve.

It all depends on the context in which you are working, and the population being evaluated.  So, in the population of the smartest kids, the one who scored a 93 is a “below average” student, but in the population of the entire school, he or she is likely “above average”.

So, before we blast people for ranking their systems or themselves “above average” we need to be able to define the context and what we really mean when we say “average”.  We need to quantify what average means in the context for what we are asking in order to truly understand the situation.  As an example for the opposite extreme,  if we’re talking about where I’d like to be in the Forbes 400 richest person list, I’m sure I could eek by in the “below average” category.


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