If you want to know how a school is doing, don’t check test scores.
Smell the bathrooms first.
If they reek of rancid urine, you can bet that school climate is “in the toilet,” so to speak.
Bathroom odor is a quick-and-dirty metric. Clean bathrooms mean competent managers, and school pride. Dirty bathrooms signal trouble.
In a similar vein, Tyler Cowen has a great heuristic for finding great food: if you’ve found a spot with great atmosphere, you’re paying for the atmosphere, not the food. Traveling abroad? Free-ride on the local foodie’s expertise. Also, the best food is at strip malls.
Cowen spoke with Nate Silver in 2016 about the importance of simple ways to measure things–metrics and heuristics. Referring to the value of a simple model, he says they’re easier to make but also that “I can also understand what the limitations… might be.”
Simple heuristics keep us humble. They remind us of what we don’t know.
Silver goes on: “(With simple heuristics) I know which direction to lean relative to that baseline. It’s more useful than a place where you just say, “Well, we fed some data into a random number generator, or a magic machine, and here’s what it spit out.”
Simple heuristics get things wrong, but so do complex ones. The difference is that we are enamored of complexity: the complicated metrics fool us into thinking we’ve got it figured out. Simplicity forces us to remember what we don’t know. Not all strip malls have great food, and not all clean bathrooms come with top-notch academic programs attached. All things considered, though, these are informative signals.
David Brooks calls this “epistemological modesty.” We need to remember how little we really know, including known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Parenthetically, a great quick-and-dirty trick to finding great thinkers is epistemological modesty. (Russ Roberts is a favorite thinker of mine.)
Now, this isn’t just touchy-feely, hippie-dippy self-improvement drivel (that will come below, in part 2). I submit that good metrics–especially the ones that keep us humble–can save lives, or break nations. Imagine if, for instance, the financial industry had shown a little modesty before the housing crisis.
“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” –Thomas S. Monson.
There are various formulations of that quotation, and it’s been widely applied in business, but the author isn’t a business leader, but a spiritual one.
The people I admire don’t just ask themselves if they’re professionally successful, but also if they are personally successful. They aren’t ambitious for wealth or advancement, but for personal improvement.
Which makes me wonder about how we measure our success.
Benjamin Franklin worked on getting better at 13 virtues: sincerity, justice, order, temperance and the like. From what I can tell, he focused on each one from time-to-time, and set specific goals and actions; but I don’t see evidence that he ever measured his progress. That’s not a slight against Franklin–I could say the same about me: I *try* to be a better person, but I have zero evidence of forward motion.
Personal improvement metrics seem particularly troublesome. In professional matters, metrics abound–and managers to make sure you don’t forget it. In personal matters, there aren’t many reliable measures of growth, and many questionable ones: it’s probably better to skip metrics altogether than rely on likes and retweets. On one hand, it’s too tempting to hear the voices telling us how great we are. On the other hand, the world will happily chew up even the kindest soul without nary a second thought.
What are the metrics of a life well-lived? What are the metrics of a life increasingly well-lived? How do we know that we are getting better at being kind, being merciful, being just?
Give your ideas below. I’ll be testing them.
Note: Don’t get too tied up about what “good person” means. For one thing it’s up for debate, but for another, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know that I could quickly define “good employee” but most people know whether they’re up for promotion, up for termination, or getting better over time.