I had the honor and pleasure of addressing the graduating class of City High School (AZ) last night, as a member of its Board of its Directors.
Poet, math whiz, kind and compassionate friend, science enthusiast, rapper, headed to engineering-college, record company intern, someone extremely patient and generous with others.
Perhaps you think that with these labels I’m describing many different individuals in this graduating class, but some of you have probably already realized I’m not: all of those descriptors are for just a single graduate sitting here today. And he’s not an exception. Here’s another single student: Artist, farmer, social activist, coffee connoisseur, techie geek, foodie.
I could continue in this vein for each member of the class, and I wish I had the time to do so. Because of the kind of education these graduates have experienced at City High, and because of the kind of young person City attracts, every graduate sitting here today could be described this way, as utterly and uniquely diverse in the breadth and depth of his or her interests, activities, and strengths.
And yet—problematically, for far too long far too many have had the wrong view of our human individuality. There’s a famous story from 1945, for instance, when a Cleveland doctor, after collecting data about nine physical dimensions from 15,000 women, created a statue of what he called the “ideal girl,” with every part of the statue made to match the exact average of each dimension —“Norma” he named the statue, to represent her “perfect” normalcy.
Norma went viral, in our terms (though not in the language of 1945) . She was the “perfect woman”—the standard all others should aspire to and be judged by, it was said in magazines nationally. They then conducted a search for the actual human woman who most perfectly matched Norma’s dimensions, a contest 4000 women participated in. Although the judges expected the contest to come down to a few millimeters difference in just one of the nine dimensions, they were proven deeply mistaken. None of the 4000 were even near average in all nine, or even eight of the dimensions, and just a handful in six or seven. What would you guess: how many of these 4000 women was at or near the average in even five of those nine dimensions? 40, just 40 out of 4000 were average in even five! There is no average person, we’ve learned—there is no such thing– —and there is no reason whatsoever to view the mythical idea of an average as an ideal.
Because we are all creatures representing an enormous number of different dimensions: not just physical but intellectual, social, emotional, and many many more, and because there are very little correlations between these many different dimensions—which is to say each dimension is unrelated to each other, that to be very tall has nothing to do with whether you are very thin; that to be very perceptive about other people’s feelings has nothing to do with whether you are very good at solving math problems— none of are Normas, none of us are normal or regular, clean and square in all our many dimensions. Instead, we are all, we might say, “jagged” in our shape, outlying the norm is so many ways.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, or thinking it is hip to be square, we must embrace our jaggedness. As Harvard researcher Todd Rose writes in his recent book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, “Recognizing our own jaggedness is the first step to understanding our full potential and refusing to be caged in by arbitrary, average -based pronouncements of who we are expected to be.”
It used to be said that you can’t put a square peg in a round hole, but these days, computers find it easy to generate both round and square pegs for any and all round and square holes our world needs to be filled. The holes that can’t be filled easily by computers are the triacontakaiheptagon holes (that’s 37 sides) and—and to fill a triacontakaiheptagon hole requires you to be very jagged indeed.
The more jagged we are, the better. Because the more we stand out distinct and proud in our eccentricities, the more we can add unique value to any enterprise to which we wish to contribute, and the more fulfillment we can derive from our particular contributions to those projects.
The best jobs of the future will be found where sharply different professions and skills intersect in unexpected ways: these jobs will be filled with gusto by the chemistry experts who are excellent videographers; the accountants who are terrific creative writers; the politicians who are passionate about physics; the restaurateurs who speak many languages; the plumbers and electricians who are most empathetic about people’s needs.
The value of jaggedness can be found in groups as well as individuals. We can this observe this truth in the senior impact groups, which each tackled important challenges, such as the enhancing the building next door, improving the environmental sustainability of the food service program, and strengthening music education. A fourth group, as an example, which tackled the issue of stress among students, thoroughly studied the issue at hand, but, because its members brought so many varying perspectives and backgrounds to the problem, it refused to settle for any easy answers, and instead, delved deeply into the nuances of stress, reframing the issues, asking new and better questions, pushing the work further.
Research has demonstrated that homogeneous groups—groups where members are mostly similar in their backgrounds and interests—are far less effective than diverse groups. To quote Scientific American, socially diverse groups work better, and graduates, consider whether you observed this in your work together this year, “not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information… [but because] simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”
In conclusion, Graduates, I urge you to avoid the pressure or the temptation to specialize too soon, or to narrow your focus too greatly: instead, strive to be excellent, or pretty darn good, in wide and widening range of ways. Diversify yourself, seeking out many interests and developing many strengths, and remember to cultivate the “jaggedness” that makes you you. Rather than being like “Norma,” be like Walt Whitman, who sang: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Widen your circles and diversify your collaborators, knowing that only by drawing upon the ideas and wisdom of individuals of very different experiences will the most challenging problems be usefully addressed and the most creative solutions generated.
Graduates of City High School, Class of 2016: Congratulations!