The end of Average

The title of this piece is analogous to the title of a book authored by Todd Rose. Fascinating book, highly recommended. The book starts off with a unique story.


The United States Air Force had a rather peculiar problem in the late 1940s. Their pilots struggled to control their planes, which was mind-blowing since this was the age of jet-power aviation with planes being more sophisticated than they had ever been. A retired airman remarked to Rose, “You never knew if you were going to end up in the dirt.” At the peak of this mystery, 17 pilots crashed in one day.

The first point of blame went to “pilot error” as being the most common reason for the crashes. Reasonable, as the planes seldom malfunctioned. This was confirmed by the engineers. Think of it in today’s terms – it is often not a computer or hardware problem, but rather a “person in front of the computer” problem. The pilots were baffled as well.

The only thing they were certain of was that their piloting skills were not the cause of the problem. This serious issue led to multiple enquiries, all ending with no answer, until attention was directed to the cockpit of the planes. The first-ever cockpit was designed in 1926. Engineers measured physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots. The data was used to standardise the dimensions of the cockpit. As Rose notes, female pilots in those days were “never a serious consideration”.

For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 (male) pilot.

Engineers wondered if male pilots had increased in size since 1926. And so, in 1950, researchers at the Wright Air Force Base in Ohio started to measure more than 4 000 pilots on no less than 140 dimensions of size that included distance from a pilot’s eye to their ear, thumb length, size and crotch height, and then calculated the average for each of the dimensions.

Rose observed, “Everyone believed this improved calculation of the average pilot would lead to a better-fitting cockpit and reduce the number of crashes. Or almost everyone.” Everyone except Lieutenant Gilbert S Daniels – the newly hired 23-year-old scientist straight out of college to the Wright Air Force Base was sceptical. His job was to measure pilots’ limbs with a tape measure.

Daniels, a Harvard graduate, had majored in physical anthropology, a field that specialised in the anatomy of humans. Daniels did a study on the shape of human hands during his undergraduate thesis and discovered that even for students with the same ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, their hands were not similar at all.

Daniels told Rose, “When I left Harvard, it was clear to me that if you wanted to design something for an individual human being, the average was completely useless.”

So, when Daniels was assigned to measuring pilots, he kept asking himself, “How many pilots really are average?” He decided to find out.

Using data from 4 603 measured pilots, he calculated the average of the 10 physical dimensions believed to be the most relevant for design. Daniels determined the dimensions of the “average pilot”, which he defined as someone whose measurements were within the middle 30% of the range of values for each dimension.

For example, the data showed that the average height of a pilot was five foot nine. Daniels then defined the height of an “average pilot” from between five foot seven to five eleven. From here, Daniels compared each pilot to the “average pilot” to determine what percentage of pilots would be within the average range on the 10 dimensions.

Consensus was that the vast majority would fall within range. The outcome? Zero.

Rose attested, “Out of 4 603 pilots, not a single airman fit within the average range on all 10 dimensions.” The “average pilot” did not exist. Even more interesting, if you picked only three of the dimensions, less than 3.5% of pilots would be average size in all dimensions.

The conclusion was that if a cockpit was designed to fit the average pilot, it was designed to fit no-one.

…if Daniels could not find one “average airman” out of 4 603 pilots and could only classify 3.5% as an average when three of the 10 dimensions were considered, how can we possibly have a standard investment solution for each client?

In a 1952 air force technical note entitled The Average Man? Daniels made the radical recommendation that environments need to fit the individual rather than the average.

The air force listened. And as Daniels explained to Rose, “Once we showed them the average pilot was a useless concept, they were able to focus on fitting the cockpit to the individual pilot. That is when things started getting better.”

The air force centred on a new guiding principle: individual fit. Rather than fitting the individual to the system, the military began fitting the system to the individual. Cockpits were re-modelled to fit pilots whose measurements fell within the 5% to 95% range on each dimension.

There is no such thing as the average person.

Aeronautical engineers quickly came up with solutions. One of them included adjustable seats, now standard in all automobiles.

Rose concludes the story: “Once these and other design solutions were put in place, pilot performance soared, and the US Air Force became the most dominant air force on the planet.”

The question then beckons, if Daniels could not find one “average airman” out of 4 603 pilots and could only classify 3.5% as an average when three of the 10 dimensions were considered, how can we possibly have a standard investment solution for each client?

Hannes Viljoen, CFA, CFP®, CEO and Head of Investments, Kudala Wealth

Every person is unique. Each person has a unique situation they are currently in that includes a unique background, and a unique attitude towards money and finance, saving and spending. There is no such thing as the average person.

Wealth managers and financial planners should take this to heart. “One size fits all” is just not good enough. We need to treat every client as the unique individual that they are. Design a unique strategy for them and through the process build trust, which is the foundation of every great relationship.

Clients deserve a state-of-the-art fighter jet service, with an adjustable cockpit to suit their unique composition.