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" … every single human being is also above average … "

In Garrison Keillor's mythical Midwestern town of Lake Woebegone, " … all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Of course, in any discrete population, not everyone can possibly end up above the average for anything. Call this The Law of Averages. In any population, whatever the purpose for sampling, some will fall below and others above the designated midpoint. A few might classify as spot-on average, but no group can possibly be comprised of entirely above averages. This small fact has yet to dissuade organizations from carefully recruiting only The Best and the Brightest, to attempt to violate The Law of Averages and produce a high performing Lake Woebegone sort of operation. This strategy hasn't worked yet. Yet.

I can, however, inhabit a real-life Lake Woebegone.
You might, too. Since the emergence of demographics, which we might understand as the art/science of classifying individuals into arbitrary groups, each of us seem to find ourselves designated as belonging to some groups we might have never imagined ourselves a part of. Demographers classify me as belonging to the population of aging white males, though I hardly identify as one of those. Demographics seem the victory of the observer over the observed, as if the observed couldn't possible understand how to classify themselves. I generally classify myself as 'none of the above" or "other", a population of exactly one on my better days, a little less than that on others.

If I inhabit a true population of one, the proper demographic calculation for me must be TheAverageOfOne. Depending upon how I perceive myself, I sometimes perform much better than my average. Other times, a bit below. I hold the potential to perform well above my average most days, at least on those days when I can muster enough motivation to outperform my past self, which isn't even nearly every day. In practice, TheAverageOfOne provides little information and proves to be essentially worthless data. It's an identity function, producing exactly the same value as input every time, no new or interesting information anytime.

Perhaps we accept these classifications of ourselves as parts of wider populations to reassure ourselves that we actually exist. Identity might be the most difficult aspect of inhabiting an identity function which consistently averages to exactly itself. Whom are we supposed to compete against? Whom can we safely belittle? Who can we help win or lose? How might we come to see ourselves as above average if we're the only one in the immediate neighborhood? Secretly, I imagine MY population of one to be way above the average for all populations of one. I mostly do this to myself.

Just because some egghead demographer decides that I'm a member of some arbitrary population doesn't mean that I actually belong there. My physician says that I'm in remarkably good shape for a man my age, which seems more of a backhanded complement than a reasoned professional judgement. My mom reliably experienced the side effects of any medication her doctor prescribed, a genuine fifth standard deviation from any mean user of most any drug she swallowed. I think of averages and populations as sometimes useful abstractions, intended to inform but not to define. Nobody is ever above average, though their performance might measure that way. Curious things happen whenever one mistakes information for definition, or measurements for identity. One might get a swollen head imagining that they're above average or tucker themselves out trying to achieve some designation never meant to define who they are but where they measure. TheAverageOfOne seems to define the point where identity and definition merge. The fact that the identity function produces no useful information might inform us all.

I believe that I'm truly in a class by myself. I try to remember that you are, too, and that my judgements might probably be based upon arbitrary classifications and that my interpretations of calculations of averages might just be skewed. We live in a time enthralled by data, soul-less, godless, human-less data. It means what we believe it means. Data might spark useful insights, but only when we remember that we're not dealing in definitions here, but information gleaned from all-too human classifications, data that
we infect with meaning. That said, I've found it personally useful to firmly believe the impossible, that all the children really are above average, and not just in the mythical Lake Woebegone, but here, too. I can some days even stretch myself into believing that every human being is also above average, even when, perhaps especially when, that average equals TheAverageOfOne.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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