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Thomas Friedman: Average is Over

The New York Times columnist and author of "That Used to Be Us" spoke to a crowd at Hathaway Brown School about the challenges of education, why America is behind other industrialized nations and how everyone can "bring something ext

Thomas L. Friedman told a crowd of about 750 people at Hathaway Brown School that "average is over."

"Everyone is going to have to bring something extra to what they do," Friedman said.

The New York Times columnist was the keynote speaker at the Shaker Heights school's third annual Education Innovation Summit. His address focused on themes in his new book, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum.

During his approximately 45 minute lecture, he spoke about how America has fell behind its peers in the world.

Instead of working harder, America "put its feet up" after the Cold War while other nations were vying after what the United States had.

"We then compounded that a decade later after 9/11, tragically, maybe necessarily, by spending a whole decade chasing the losers of globalization called al-Qaeda and The Taliban rather than the winners, called India, China and Brazil," he said.

Then, the world moved from connected to "hyperconnected." He illustrated this in several stories, and spoke about the ramifications for people in the United States.

For example, about 250 students from China applied to Grinnell College in Iowa, he said. And 43 percent had a perfect score on their math SAT. 

"Now I'm not talking about Stanford. I'm not talking about USC. I'm talking about Grinnell College in Central Iowa," Friedman said, explaining that the U.S. is now on a global curve. "This pressure to be above average is something that touches all of us. And therefore all of us have to think about how we educate to, inspire and draw from ourselves that extra ... That's going to be the challenge of education going forward."

Average used to be OK, he said. Students could drop out of high school and still find a good-paying job with benefits. Now, he said it's "virtually impossible" to drop out of school and find a job that will lead to a nice lifestyle.

But he said outsourcing is old news. People who found good work in factories and watched as their jobs were exported or computerized are not the only ones affected. In a hyperconnected world, professors in other states and countries can educate students online, he said, providing an example, and for far less than the salary of in-person professors.

In order to compete and survive, everyone must be able to adapt to the evolution of whatever job they have and be able to reinvent and innovate.

After interviewing several bosses from completely different industries, he compiled and shared "four basic lessons" about how people can think about themselves and their work.

"Think like an immigrant" and "stay hungry," as if everything you have worked for could be snatched away at any moment, he said. "Think like an artisan, and take pride in your work." "Think like a starter-upper" and always "be in beta" or the testing phase, the perfecting phase because you are never finished.

And "think like a waitress at Perkins Pancakes." Don't just show up, always bring something extra to the table, he said, sharing a story of a woman who brought his friend extra fruit and received a 50 percent tip.

"We need to bring our bottom up to our average so much faster. Because if you are below average, there is nothing for you now," he said. "At the same time, we need to bring our average to the global heights."

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