Is it OK to be average?

These days, being called “average” is generally considered an insult. We live in a commercial society where we are constantly told that we are exceptional and unique. No one wants to be normal.

But, as Aleks Krotoski in The Digital Human has found out, it turns out that sometimes it's good to be ordinary.

Being average can help to conceal the exceptional

The ex-spy

Sarah J Kelly is the Director of My Fashion Empire in Australia as well as a fashion writer, stylist and consultant. But in her “former life” she worked for intelligence agencies both in Australia and London, holding various roles within the Office of the then Prime Minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the British Ministry of Defence.

Blending in and being average is an essential part of being an intelligence officer. One surveillance officer goes out of his way to look very unkempt and untidy, like he's put in very little effort, to avoid detection.

Blending in and being average, Sarah says, is an essential part of being an intelligence officer. Her colleagues were never “loud in the way they dressed or way they appeared.” In fact, they were intentionally boring, dressing like any non-descript corporate employee. Her former workplace was “just a sea of the same grey suits and an enormous amount of beige.”

One of her colleagues, who was on surveillance, “almost always went out of his way to look very unkempt and untidy.” He may have looked like he hadn’t made an effort, Sarah says, but looking average was all part and parcel of working for the organisation. Looking slightly “dishevelled” and ordinary was his way of avoiding detection.

The ex-graffiti artist

Being average also helped renowned graffiti artist Glynn Judd stay incognito.

Glynn worked for a corporate bank in property investment, but in the evenings and at weekends he was the world famous graffiti artist going by the name of “Noir.” He made his name in the great, if illegal, tradition of tagging trains – breaking into depots at night and spraying them with his highly stylised signature. The very average city worker went undetected amongst his colleague and evaded the police for twelve years. It was only when he became more public, doing commissions and gallery shows, that the police were able to work out who he was.

He recalls the day that his past caught up with him: “There was two officers on the front door, and there was two sitting in the car. You could see they were looking at each other thinking ‘does this look like the guy that we’re actually after?’” They would have been expecting a “hood-wearing, lager-drinking lout” he says, but there he was, “dressed in a suit, ready to go to work.”

Being average can protect us from online advertisers

Curtis Wallen is a visual artist. In 2013, he began working on a digital and physical alias called Aaron Brown. “Aaron Brown is this guy from Cleveland, Ohio,” who is, Curtis says “super, super average.”

As Bernie Hogan, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford's Internet Institute, explains, personal online accounts help companies to “profile you more effectively and sell you the things that they think are going to be most effective to sell you.”

6ft tall, with brown hair and brown eyes, average Aaron is an identity that Wallen created online to try and evade the commercial tracking that was attempting to shape his experience of the internet. He began to browse the internet as Aaron, rather than Curtis: “For me it was really looking at all these entities and starting to understand day to day, as I go about my business online, the hundreds of companies that were tracking and then commercialising and selling my data.”

Being average was a crucial part of the plan. “Anomalies stick out,” says Curtis. “If you are a regular guy,” who “drives a regular car, lives in a regular house – people are going to scrutinise you less. The more you can blend in” the better.

Being average helps society to function

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University. He says that “although we think it’s great that people aspire to being a great leader, a great entrepreneur, a senior executive” and “wonderful because it’s non-conformist and it’s rebellious and disruptive,” along with a whole bunch of other buzzwords, “no society can function unless the majority of people follow rules and unless the majority of people behave in exactly the same way.”

Bernie Hogan agrees: “We need people to participate in these institutions,” he says, “because they’re large, they’re complex, and they only run when they’re accountable and people are paying attention to them.” It’s important that we “participate” by voting, for example, and paying taxes. But “that form of solidarity, that form of I am part of something larger, is harder to ascertain when all the signals you’re given are about you,” online and off. For this reason, he says, “It’s definitely worth it to try and depersonalise some of your experiences” in life and to consciously identify as average.

Ultimately, it’s about achieving a balance between average and exceptional

Shouldn’t being labelled average be taken as a compliment, rather than an insult, particularly if it means we are thinking a little more about the common good?

We can all choose when to be either average and fit in, or when to be unique and stand out from the crowd, so that the two are conscious and purposeful decisions.

Ultimately, the world is optimised for average people and little would function if the bulk of us were outliers. Being average also allows us to blend in when we want to, and avoid the targeted trappings of the online world. Being unique can be a good thing, but we need to keep our online-fuelled individualism in perspective, Aleks says, “and remember the forces at work that are encouraging us” to see ourselves as special.

Crucially though, Aleks says, we should choose to be either average or unique when it suits us, so that the two are “conscious and purposeful decisions”.

We can all choose when to fit in, and when to stand out from the crowd.