Monday, February 25, 2013

How Much Better is Best Compared to Average?

I recently watched a “lost interview” of Steve Jobs. The interview was done in 1995, when Mr. Jobs was busy with his company NeXT. This is one year before Apple purchased NeXT and Mr. Jobs returned to Apple to run the company. It is before the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Mr. Jobs was asked about Apple and his vision of the future. In the interview I could see some of the natural charisma of Mr. Jobs. I could begin to understand his focus on “content,” as he put it. I think he would say his company and his products had to have a soul; they had to bring the best of what humans have to offer to the table.

One comment he made that really got my attention was about the difference between “average” and “best.” In most cases, he observed, the difference between “average” and “best” makes at most a 2-to-1 impact. As examples, he noted that the difference between an average taxi cab experience and the best taxi cab experience might only get you to your destination 20% faster. The same was true for airplane flights. Moving away from travel, we can imagine that the “best” medical examination or treatment might increase our life span by a few percent (excluding the times we catch something serious early). In fact, it can be difficult to think of a true 2-to-1 multiplier experience. Maybe when we think of retail transactions, the “best” retail transaction experience might make us twice as likely to return to a particular store.

However, one thing that drew Mr. Jobs to software development was the fact that software absolutely shatters this 2-to-1 constraint. The best software, he noted, is 50 or maybe even 100 times better than average software. Anyone who has wrestled with a bad user interface and also experienced a good one will probably agree with this assessment. I know I do.

But this made me think, what about higher education? Is higher education constrained by the 2-to-1 limit?

I don’t think so. I have had an average teacher in a subject and a "best" teacher (i.e., a teaching award winner) in the same subject; and the experience with the "best" teacher was far, far more than two times better than the experience with the "average" teacher. It was better in terms of my learning and retention of the subject matter, it was better in terms of my subsequent engagement with that topic, and it was better in terms of my ability to apply what I had learned later (in some cases, much later) in life. The same holds at the institutional level. I’ve been to average schools and “best” schools. The experience at the “average” schools was largely forgettable. The experience at the “best” schools shaped my life.

So, we have this opportunity every day to be “average” or strive to be “best” at what we do. Which will you choose? Which would you rather be known for?

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