The Dark Side of Measuring Everything

Reality is more complicated than numbers

Karla Starr


The first book I ever fell in love with was Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield? Swoon. Now there was a protagonist after my heart: a swearing curmudgeon who just did his own thing. But the book has one fundamental flaw: it took J.D. Salinger 10 long years to write.

I keep returning to Cal Newport’s quote about the inherent benefits of working quickly, the way that Adam Grant does when he apparently locks himself in his office for days on end and lets his wife do everything else:

Two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.”

Cal’s obsession with writing-all-the-papers-now stems from his desire to get tenure, a very complicated process that he boiled down to how many people cite your work in quality publications. And, in his mind, the best way to get a lot of citations is to publish as many papers as you can.

In real life, publishing as much as you can is known as spamming.

from Austin Kleon’s wonderful book Show Your Work

Advice that might work for would-be professors, like other specific kinds of advice, doesn’t always work outside of that context. “This worked for me!” frequently gets sold as “I found the secret to life!” without stopping to consider the unique applications to that person, time, goal, life, talent, resource, location, etc.

I’m not arguing against writing often and quickly, but commenting on the idea that more isn’t always better. Blogging every day will give you lots of practice blogging—but you’re not going to work the kinds of muscles you need to write a book. You’re not going to learn how to sustain longer story arcs, develop big ideas, or juggle lots of notes and research. And because there’s no way to measure these skills, it’s easy to forget about them entirely if you’re only focused on a few numbers, like how many words you write per day.

I recently published my second book, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, and spent the last few years thinking about numbers — what they mean, what they measure, how we can talk about them, etc., and this essay on God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology



Karla Starr

Speaker & author x2, inc. Making Numbers Count (w/ Chip Heath). Behavioral science, cultural history, numbers.