From time to time, we all take stock of our lives. We look at where we are, what we have become, what we have, who we are, and we pass judgement upon ourselves. Often these evaluations are overly critical or benchmarked against unrealistic expectations. These moments of self-evaluation can be crushing and can be the source of feelings of inadequacy, unhappiness and even depression. They are often disempowering and destructive. But they don’t have to be. In my experience, the root-cause of bad evaluation is poorly selected units of measure. In fact, bad measuring tools is often the cause for much of the world’s problems.
The Common Pitfall of Self-Evaluation
We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, its part of our nature. I can’t say whether its part of our innate nature…that is to say we’re “born with it”, or whether we are raised to be the perpetual adjudicators we become, but I can say that we are constantly in a state of measuring ourselves and comparing what we find with our perception of other people. Note the word perception, that’s important. In reality, we frequently compare ourselves to an avatar of other people. We really don’t know how much money other people have, we just estimate it based on the cars they drive, the trips they take, the clothes they wear and the homes they live in. We don’t really know how happy they are, we just guess based on how much they smile, or how happy they ought to be based on the wealth we estimate they have.
Often we take these perceptions of other people, and using the units of measure that are generally accepted by our culture (money, career success, physical appearance, celebrity, etc), and we compare our perceptions of ourselves. Here again the word perception is the operative word. Most of us have less than objective opinions of ourselves. These opinions are shaped and reinforced by our faulty comparisons and by internalizing the cultures measures of success.
Income and Personal Wealth Are Terrible Measuring Sticks
Money is the most frequently used unit of success measurement. Our culture urges us to see the accumulation of wealth as a way to measure a person’s value. The greater the income, the greater the person. Intellectually we know that this is an error in logic, yet this measure persists. Why? Why do we continue to use this measure when it favours people like Donald Trump or Martin Shkreli over people like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Maybe because it makes comparison easy? Maybe because it’s simple to understand? Some would even call it objective in that a dollar is a dollar, is a dollar. But it is not an objective measure and it only appears to offer easy comparisons. The fact is that measurement based on monetary value is superficial and overly simplistic. It actually clouds what we as humans know to be truly valuable if we given the concept more than just a passing thought.
The Inherent Bias of Money as a Measure
Something has monetary value, if and only if someone is willing to pay you for it. In this way, monetary value (or price) is essentially the value two or more people agree upon, nothing more. In economic terms, price is the value that a willing buyer will give a willing seller for a good or service. As the theory goes, the more willing sellers and buyers you bring into this “market” the better approximation this price will be for the “value” of the good or service. It’s an elegant theory, but it’s not without its challenges. Price does not always equate to value. Tell me the price of having a good relationship with your child, or your parents? What is the price of a cherished memory or good health? How much does fulfillment or happiness cost?
As a society, we have also use this bias measure to determine the value of our collective self assessments. Whereas personal wealth and income are common measures of an individual’s worth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a common measurement for the status of a nation. But GDP has similar practical flaws as a measure. Robert Kennedy, on March 18, 1968, gave a speech at the University of Kansas where he delivered a poetic evisceration of the blind adherence to the use of economic measures to judge a country’s success. Now, GDP and GNP are not exactly the same thing, but their flaws are the same, and Kenndy’s point is no less valid.
“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
- Robert Kennedy
The Value of a Tree
I was reminded of this quote and of this argument as I read a passage from Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and Nobel Laureate. In it she articulates the failure of common economics to give a living tree any value. In classical economics a tree is more valuable dead than alive. Dead, it can be cut up and solid as a commodity or as an input for the creation of some commercial product. She notes that classical economics fail to put a value on what some now call the “environmental services” performed by the tree; the water they clean, the oxygen they produce, the carbon they pull from the atmosphere and sequester, the food they supply, the soil they enrich and secure, or the homes they provide for other living things. Its this failure of our primary measurement system that consistently leads us as a society to fail to account for the impact our decisions have on the environment. As the saying goes, what’s measured is treasured. Failing to use the right units of measure is leading us in the wrong direction as a species.
Measuring What Matters
When I read biographies or about the great things done by inspired people, I often think about my own achievements and efforts. I often wonder if I would have the courage to take a stand or to challenge the status quo like the people I read about. Would I have the persistence and fortitude to do the things that these people have done? The more I learn about people like Wangari Maathai, the more I connect with the idea that we should not measure our success by in dollars, but by the benefit we offer to others. Rather than measuring our financial capital, I think we’d have a much better world if we measured the social and environmental capital we generate.
The same is true for our society. Rather than measure the financial value of the widgets we produce, we should judge our success by how healthy we are, how clean our environment is, how joyful we are and how much peace we enjoy. We would treasure different things and we would make better decisions.
Can you imagine what life would be like if we chose to really measure what matters?