Measuring What Matters

Each of us has a god, an ultimate concern, around which we orient our days and lives.

Measuring What Matters

We live in an age of quantity. Everywhere we look, we are inundated with data that tells how much. In the world of fitness, for example, I can go to a spin class and constantly monitor cadence, resistance, and output in order to put a concrete number on how much energy my cycling produced. In the financial world, I can watch markets rise and fall by the second, get the latest figures for a company’s projected value, watch the U.S. national debt rise at a rate that, when compared to my own debt, at least makes me feel good about myself.

Rarely, though, do we really measure what matters.

Mostly, we focus on meaningless things like bank accounts—the red and the black—or pant sizes or numbers on a scale.

Most of us, though, if we were hard-pressed to define what our life’s purpose truly is, would not look at our weight or our latest FTP test or our bank accounts as a measure of success. The things that we are measuring, that we find important right now, usually aren’t that important in the long run.

As we miss out on graduations across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m reminded of high school students and the way that so many of them stress over their grades. But ask most people in their mid-life about a particular grade on a particular grade report—the first semester of Computer Science I during your sophomore year, for example—and they’ll have no clue what number or letter was associated with that class.

These things don’t matter. They aren’t markers of success. My weight, bank accounts, and grades do not define me as a person. It’s rare to walk through a graveyard and see epitaphs that talk about straight-A students, billionaires, or 8% body fat.

Why, then, do we spend so much of our time concerned about these things?

Probably because they are easy measurements. They are data points that can be tracked and then averaged across populations in order to create some comparison that supposedly has meaning. Our income levels fall neatly into brackets as do our pant sizes, body fat percentages, grades, and anything else that we measure externally.

But, as the sage Annie Dillard told us: “How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives.”

Therefore, what should we be measuring?

My friend Barbara is fond of pointing out these two facts:

  1. Most of us will be dead within 100 years.
  2. Most of us will be forgotten within 200 years.

Sounds morbid, right? But when we put these facts together, we come away with a powerful argument for time as our most precious commodity because we have so little of it.

What if, instead of these easy (but meaningless measures), we tracked time? What if we said that we would like to spend time in pursuit of the things that we find most meaningful? We could measure our time in pursuit of

  • building positive relationships,
  • seeking to create positive change in our communities,
  • cultivating a mindset that creates wholeness and well-being in ourselves so that we can live lives that aren’t so myopic in their ultimate concern.

That last phrase, “ultimate concern,” is borrowed from the sage Paul Tillich, a twentieth century theologian, who used it to define “god.” Each of us has a god, an ultimate concern, around which we orient our days and lives. We can choose, of course, to spend our time worrying about the metrics that the system tells us matter: how we look, how much money we make, how many likes we have on our most recent set of images on Instagram. We can do that. We can turn likes and dollar figures and waist sizes into our ultimate concern.

But we can also choose a different path.

The unruly buddha—awakened to the silliness of the rat races all around us and the way that those races have been propped up by the media that craves our attention and seeks to make us worrisome and anxious about how we compare—rejects these metrics as measures of import. Rather, she looks at this moment as the manifestation of her ultimate concern. She says that we have this time right here and right now. Nothing else is guaranteed. Therefore, she takes a deep breath and stares into the blue sky above and imagines nothing, but experiences now as eternity as she marvels at sunrays beating down upon her hair at a steady and astounding 300,000 kilometers per second.

She touches the Earth, and she knows that she is here right now.

This is the only measurement that matters.