When the US Air Force was designing fighter plane cockpits, they discovered that having the controls in the perfect spot made a big difference in terms of life and death. However, Todd Rose in his TED talk titled The Myth of Average, explains that designing for the perfect position was tricky because there is no useful average dimensions of a man. Each pilot is different.

It’s a great example of why you can design stuff for the average person when the stakes are low. Pants, for example. They don’t fit perfectly if you buy them at the GAP, but paying an extra $500 for the perfect fit isn’t worth it.

School is more like fighter planes than GAP jeans. There is no average, so all materials designed for the average student serve to undermine each student’s abilities, just like poorly placed plane controls. We get upset when we find out that essay test grading is totally corrupt, but how could essay test grading be fair when they are looking for some sort of average response to a question that brings up a (presumably) visceral response?

When I first saw this video of a twelve-year-old Egyptian boy talking about politics to a reporter, I thought, “Oh my gosh, he is simply astounding. He is a genius.” But then I thought, “Really, he is just super passionate about the subject. All kids become geniuses when they are in their sweet spot.” (It’s true for all adults as well, really.)

The problem is that we have a fixation on average. We have to peg average so that we know our kid is above average, and if we sense something is below average, we need to peg average to know where we need to get to.

I was slapped in the face with my own fixation on average when I saw this photo. It came from a series of photos I took of my son’s day in Chicago. I used every photo in the series except this one. Melissa is my photo editor, among other things. I called her and said, “How could you think I’m going to use that photo? His face is messed up.”

“What?” she said. “I don’t even see it. You are the only one who ever sees it.”

“His eye.”

“Oh. Yeah. I see it. Well, no one else will see it. You can use it.”

But I didn’t use it. Because my son has hemifacial microsomia. He’s had three operations on his face. He’ll probably have another when he’s older. I’m obsessed with wanting his face just to be normal. (Here’s the post where I write about him having hemifacial microsomia. You should read it. It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written.)

I’m posting this photo. Because I need to get over the idea of average being something to aim for.

All kids are above average in some things and below average in some things. It’s the job of children to get a good understanding of themselves so they can put themselves in a right-fitting cockpit where ever they choose to fly. And it’s the job of parents to help them by setting them free from the constrictions of average.