I regularly say, “who wants to be average anyway”? Usually, the answer is no one because average is broken. Average is purchasing things you can’t afford to impress people you don’t like.
So maybe that’s why I purchased Average is Over by Tyler Cowen? Maybe it was the fact that I’ve heard Malcolm Gladwell say that Cowen’s blog is one of the things he reads every morning?
I ask this question up front because I had no idea why I purchased this book within about 10 minutes of reading it. I couldn’t see why I would be interested in the ideas presented.
The premise of Cowen’s book is:
If you and your skills are a compliment to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.
What that means in practice is that the book comes across as pretty doom and gloom quickly. Most of the current workforce will be out of work. Unemployment will rise and rise. Computers will do this to us.
That is unless you have a very specific set of skills.
The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is key, not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake. Number-crunching skills will be turned over to the machines sooner or later.
It feels like there are some flaws here though. Cowen says that every job will need this and brings up the example of a Masseuse. This field will need to know how to use Google Adwords. Not just pay someone to do it for them, know how to do it themselves.
Here we have a flaw in his arguments. A masseuse needs to be good at delivering a great experience. An Adwords specialist needs to know how to help drive leads to that masseuse.
Why do we need an overlap according to Cowen?
Another poor point or at least a depressing one is the fact that Cowen sees that we’ll have a huge swath of the economy driven by giving high earners, even more, ways to feel awesome about themselves.
At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved.
First, I think that he under estimates how much consumerism drives purchasing. There is always a new iDevice to purchase. There is always a new model of car…and on it goes.
Second, and maybe I’m just wrong here, that statement feels so…vapid. I hope it doesn’t come to that as you gain success. You need an army of service people around making your life even more awesome to confirm how awesome you are because you earn money.
In fact, if you think I’m wrong, please never read my stuff. Find somewhere else to hang out because we’re not friends.
A third flaw likely comes from the time this book was written in that a bunch of the examples are dated. Cowen cites the random stupid questions tech companies like Google used to ask you in a job interview.
Google found that these insane questions, and answering them well had no bearing on job performance. Where Cowen cites this type of knowledge as crucial, it’s not.
It’s clear: The world is demanding more in the way of credentials, more in the way of ability, and it is passing along most of the higher rewards to a relatively small cognitive elite.
Cowen also cites the need for a degree, which many companies no longer require. Again, they found that a degree did little to predict good job performance.
Some good ideas in Average is Over
Now it’s not all bad. There are some good thought provoking ideas in Average is Over. Some that are going to call in to question what we each value, like the one below.
People are getting accustomed to an existence where they cannot find satisfying work at a wage they is happy with.
Where many see this and talk about a living wage, I see people that want to live in expensive cities. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that raising minimum wage doesn’t affect the price of all goods.
Let’s not pretend that raising the minimum wage doesn’t devalue the earnings of those that were earning $5 above minimum wage a few months ago. They’re not getting $3/hour raise, so they stay at the same relative purchasing power.
All the extra employee costs go to the consumer, which is the same person that just got a ‘living wage’.
Ambitious and talented young people today are more likely to want to live in a relatively small number of cities and region, rather than spreading themselves out as much as they used to.
I think that we need to stop the entitled thoughts that we have some right to live in any city we want. It doesn’t matter the cost of the city. I want it and I deserve it so you should pay me enough to live here.
I think that’s entirely insane.
Another great idea is that you need to have an opinion.
No one rises to the top of the business world by breaking world by breaking even on a lot of deals, and no one successfully woos a lot of women, or marries the right one, by acting “just okay” or neutral.
Hot coffee is great. Cold coffee is great. Room temperature coffee delivers caffeine if you’re desperate.
While I firmly hold to the idea that I don’t argue on the internet, you need to have an opinion to be heard above the noise that’s out there.
This idea transfers to a business that ‘builds websites’ instead of serving a specific niche. When you help everyone, there is no specific project just for you.
One of the final points I found interesting in Average is Over was the idea that we need to keep educating ourselves. Clearly, I agree with that as you read a book review from me. I’ve got many of them and they’re all part of my ongoing education.
I think that Cowen overestimates the effectiveness of online education. I work on membership sites and online courses for clients. A really good completion rate for a course is 20%. Even looking at myself, I’ll read a book but I almost never complete an online course. I have to force myself to do it and knowing that I purchase few of them.
Will online learning become more common? Yes, it will. Will it be effective…maybe? Certainly, most of the models we have currently aren’t amazing.
Before I present my verdict lets talk about the overall structure of the book. Where Cowen makes some great points, he then spends hundreds of pages talking about them from just a slightly different angle using a barely different example.
Cutting this book a few hundred pages shorter could be a game changer in my recommendation. In fact, the entire last section of the book, about 1/3 of the pages, should be maybe 20 pages.
Overall, no don’t bother with this book. I think it contains too many flaws in thinking and while there are some interesting ideas, they’re too scattered.