Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of… optimal?

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Peter Drucker

This is commonly referenced as one of the most famous quotes in business.

However, there is a dark side to tracking and measuring, that I have experienced at work and in my personal life.

As soon as competitive people start to measure something, there’s pressure to make it better. And once better reaches the maximum level, it’s optimal.

The human mind wants to win whatever game is being played. In other words, it asks: what is the path of least resistance to improve the thing that is being measured in order to reach optimal?

But that path of least resistance and the actions we take along that path to reach optimal might not be, at the end of the day, what is best for us.

The pursuit of optimal can replace the pursuit of… the bigger picture.

An extremely common example of this is with weight loss. If your success is measured by a lower number on the scale, you will optimize for a lower number on the scale, even if that means embracing crash diets, juice cleanses, and fat-loss pills.

There are many other examples of this in other aspects of life:

  • We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy
  • We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done (productivity)
  • We teach for standardized tests instead of emphasizing learning, curiosity and critical thinking.

But is a specific measurement really the goal?

Is reaching “optimal” really the point?

Perhaps not.

We optimize what we measure. And when we choose the wrong measurement, we get the wrong behavior. This is also known as Goodhart’s law:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

Economist Charles Goodhart

So does this mean we shouldn’t track or measure?

Measurement can be extremely valuable. But the lesson here is measurement is only useful when it guides you and adds context to a larger picture, not when it consumes you. Each number is simply one piece of feedback in the overall system.

Another important point is that we tend to underestimate how much his hidden. Ed Catmull describes the consequence of this well in Creativity, Inc.:

It really is easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that data paints a full picture. In our data driven world, I find that really embodying this idea of “taking a step back to think about what you are doing” is much easier said than done:

We tend to overvalue numbers and anything ephemeral, soft, and difficult to quantify.

We mistakenly think that factors we can measure are the only factors that exist.

But just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.

And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.

James Clear

So if optimal isn’t the point, then what is?

Perhaps the goal is resilient.

Or we could value delightful, stressless, or reliable instead.

Optimal is ultimately sterile. It leaves no room for much of anything else, including joy

Seth Godin

Instead of optimal, the goal could be reslient, delightful, stressless, reliable, productive, health, learning, creativity… and many more.

But maybe the ultimate goal which each of these goals ladder up to, the ultimate goal behind why we have all these goals in the first place, is not the pursuit of optimal… but the pursuit of joy. The pursuit of happiness.

In summary, my mindset on measurements is:

  • measurements guide my decisions (they don’t make them for me)
  • measurements are a single piece of feedback (that add context to a larger picture, they don’t consume me)
  • measurements provide a little bit of evidence that I’m moving in the right direction (and a brief moment of pleasure for a job well done)
  • measure what I can, evaluate what I measure, and appreciate that I can’t measure the vast majority of what I do

Sources:

From Atomic Habits, by James Clear

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