We are more than our metrics.

More than our metricsThis may be expected of a person who seems to gravitate toward the subjective, but I have a growing uneasiness about our culture’s obsession with metrics.

A few days ago, I commented on someone’s Facebook post on one of the latest books about education, one that compares and contrasts our system with the some of the world’s more successful. Having not read the book, I can’t say that the other countries aren’t sucked into obsessive measurement of their students, but I know we are. My family’s personal experience hasn’t been too mired in metrics, but I know plenty of parents whose kids are taught to the test. Last year teachers at our local public school district went on strike in part because of measurement. I saw many picketers holding up signs saying something along the lines of, “Do you want your child to learn to think or fill in a bubble?”

Today it’s a recent article from the New York Times on the ranking of colleges and universities by the income of its graduates that has me disturbed. We knew it would come to this, right? I’m a bit surprised it has taken this long, but I suppose accessing and calculating this kind of data is a massive undertaking.

This development bothers me for a couple of reasons. The first is the broader issue of how it seems that nothing can go unmeasured. (Perhaps instead of No Child Left Behind, we should say No Child Left Unmeasured.) Granted, with the price of a college education as high as it is, it’s clear how tempting it is to evaluate a school’s worth based on potential income of its graduates. Yet, it also devalues so many aspects of higher education that can’t be translated into data that is fed into a spreadsheet that gives us objective numbers. I credit my four years in college with expanding my worldview and giving me the confidence to explore. I don’t believe that either of these influenced my salary at any point in my career, though my liberal arts education makes it possible for me to position it that way, if that was in fact, my point. Beyond the paper my degree is printed on (and where that is, I have no idea) and my transcript, most of what I left with is fairly subjective.

That subjective stuff is the best part. People invest in these degrees, most believing that they will carry them throughout the several decades of their adult life. This involves not only job skills (many of which are actually obtained through internships and entry-level work anyway), but also the hallmarks of liberal education, such as communication skills, interpretation, critical thinking and an appreciation of the human experience, among many other things. Will the algorithm to measure this stuff ever exist?

The other troubling point is what is being measured — money. In the case of a college education, this is a chicken-and-egg prospect. College is expensive. Though our modern financial approaches make it within reach of many people, it really shouldn’t be. I’m not a financial expert, but I wonder if a collapse similar to what happened with the housing market is possible with higher education. This is why this kind of measurement is so enticing, I suppose. Why spend six figures if you’re not going to get a sizable return?

This brings us back to the real value of higher education. In the article, one of the experts quoted cautions against higher education becoming more like a “referral or employment agency.” It seems that colleges are being viewed as white collar trade schools. What if your “trade” isn’t high-paying, like teaching or social work? Should you encourage your kid to go to a less expensive school simply because he or she wants to study a subject with limited financial gain?

Will this create a system where the most expensive and most prestigious colleges will primarily educate our engineers, financial tycoons and CEOs, with the less-expensive options focused on the folks who help our children prepare for college or provide many, many people with the skills to function in our society? What about healthcare professionals? With the income potential for jobs like general and family practitioners decreasing in comparison to the cost of medical school, will the people who help us manage our health be encouraged to seek out lower-cost degrees?

And if college education becomes segmented by income potential, will it become a you-get-what-you-pay-for situation?

Worse yet, what if our most ambitious and talented folks choose only degrees that will earn them a certain amount of money? We all know this happens already. By focusing even more attention on this, does it become a mandate for choosing a career? Will it tip the balance for more people between wealth and happiness in what they do for a living?

I’m not an educator, financial guru or mathematician (which is probably quite apparent), but I have a strong sense that we are counting up the leaves and the branches, but missing the beautiful forest. Maybe it’s just that the art of art is lost on us as we try to add it all up and make some kind of sense of the value we provide in our world. My gut tells me that with all this concern of measuring up, we are missing a big piece of the human experience.

I know how I got here, but now what?

40 sign

The number may change but the forces of change do not.

This general topic has been in my head for about a week, and I wanted to write about it but couldn’t find an anchor for the concept. There’s that great line from the Talking Heads song that goes, “How did I get here?” But what I’m experiencing is slightly different from that.

Today I saw this piece in the New York Times about the difference in how people remember themselves from the past and how they perceive their future selves. It’s interesting, though probably not surprising, that studies show that people tend to have a better handle on who they used to be versus the person they will be. The gist is that people underestimate how much they’ll change over the course of a decade, even into their 60s, after they’ve had several decades of experience as an evolving adult.

Here I am at midlife, and I’m a bit baffled by the idea that, like I did when I was nearing my twenties, I need to consider what I want my future to entail. When I was decades younger, I didn’t really think much about being in my 40s, but when the fleeting thought did pass through my mind, I pictured a fairly static and stable lifestyle that I could ride out through my remaining years. Now I realize that this isn’t the case.

For example, as a 40-something, I need to think about my lifestyle (career, educating kids, geography and a whole bunch of other stuff) and how I want to guide it as I become more “mature.” There is the whole retirement thing, but there is also the idea that perhaps I don’t need to be tethered to a particular market (or climate). My concept of the best kind of lifestyle has changed as I’ve worked a family into the mix and developed richer personal interests. My values have also changed, and I want those to be reflected in my life’s work, both the paid and unpaid.

I had a similar decision to make when I chose a college major, and my parameters were different… and so were my influences. I had fewer responsibilities to others, but I also came of age in the 80s, when opportunity had a different ring to it. My parents played a big role in guiding me, and their own experiences colored their perception. Like many people, if I was sitting in front of that book of majors right now, I’d probably make different choices. But given the input I had back then – from myself, my family and the world around me – I can see how I came up with what I did.

One of the points people make in the comments following the New York Times piece is how personality doesn’t change over time. How does that account for the development that takes place in people over time? I think it’s all about context. The core of my values were the same, but how they manifest themselves in my life has changed over time. So, it’s possible that I am made of the same “raw materials,” but time puts us in different situations, teaches us, provides us with different experiences and brings different influences into our lives.

Every generation blames the one after

Courtesy of Time Magazine from 1990

Do you remember being called a “slacker?” Maybe no one used this term to describe you personally, but if you are a GenXer, I’m sure someone said this in reference to one of your friends, roomies, co-workers or classmates.

I’ve noticed a number of reports popping up about the current generation of 20-somethings, and so many of the complaints are identical to the ones made about us 20 years ago.  Young adults are returning to their parents’ homes to live.  The 20-somethings, pampered and coddled as children, and unprepared for life.  This new generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as the previous — they want everything without having to earn it.

A recent post in the New York Times blog Motherlode from a 20-something sets us straight.  These comments cannot be applied to everyone in her generation.  And, I’ll take that a step further… these comments can be applied to any generation.

Twenty years ago, GenXers frequently were cast as a woeful lot.  Kids who should be adults doing things like living in mom’s basement apartment, taking a lower paying day job because it freed up time to play in a band at night and squandering a bachelor’s degree on a job at a gas station in order to escape Midwestern winters.  Two decades later, where are these people now?  Of the three referenced here, two are successful entrepreneurs and the other has advanced significantly in her chosen career.  I know many other stories of humble and questionable young adult beginnings.  From what I can see, how one chooses to spend their years before 30 has less to do with their success afterwards than we sometimes fear.

My guess is that similar comments were made about Baby Boomers in the late-60s and early-70s, kids who spent their time partying and protesting the war when they should have been working in responsible jobs with respectable haircuts.  A walk through The Haight in San Francisco echoes of young adults who eventually moved on and out, creating lives that measure up to the standards of adulthood that we use to judge the generation behind us.

Based on what I’ve seen as a middle-age GenXer, I’m not too concerned about this “entitled” generation.  I worry about plenty of other things in our future, but very little of it has to do with a minority of people who will probably make it okay in the end.

I’m not busy — just self-important.

I absolutely love this piece from the New York Times Opinionator by Tim Kreider.  Aside from my need to indulge in cynicism today (it was one of “those days”), it also made me consider what was the real source of my frequent exasperation with being “too busy”.

I won’t comment further on what’s covered in this post.  But to recap for those who won’t click on the link, the writer talks about how most of the time the busy state people claim to suffer from is self-induced, and that busy-ness is some sort of claim that people make to help themselves feel more relevant.  I totally get what he’s saying, and I totally get why people do this.  And I will confess to these sins.

I frequently find myself with a enhanced ego from a to-do list that is unstoppable.  Scratch that — I like this kind of to-do list for about three days, then I start to resent myself and anyone who tries to but in on my love affair with my own busy-ness by adding something to the list that I consider an annoyance.  I want that to-do list to be filled with a delicate balance of things that “involve” me in something important with items that add an element of drudgery, like ordering new uniform pieces while Land’s End is still offering 30 percent off and free shipping.  Upsetting that balance with something from either end of the spectrum will transform me from energized to grumpy.

But, the thing is, I sometimes don’t know what to do with myself without that huge to-do list.  Put ten things on there, and I’ll probably accomplish more than half within a reasonable time period.  With only three, I’m lucky to finish even a single one.  Being busy feeds my frontal lobe with just the right boost to put my very best executive functioning skills into play.  Without the proper dose, I am susceptible to watching House Hunters marathons  (without a basket of unfolded laundry in front of me) or spending a few hours surfing the internet for unbreakable outdoor dinnerware that I still haven’t purchased in a decade.

Kreider does have a point, though, about falseness of busy-ness and the inadequacy that a lack of too much to do implies.  When I worked full-time in the office of a large PR firm, I would occasionally suffer a silent phone or low activity on my email account due to being between projects or clients.  It took about three hours of that barren existence for me to pop into my boss’ office and offer up my time on anything that was short-staffed in our practice group.  Those 90 minutes drove me to the edge, but within a half a day on my new project I was already back to wishing I worked in the flower shop I passed by every day on my way to work.  I now realize that I was addicted to the busy high, despite the stress hangover it induced.

Can I kick the busy habit?  This is not likely, as some of what I do is quite fulfilling.  But perhaps I can begin to think of it in a different way.  It’s not busy-ness.  It’s not a burden or a badge.  It’s just the way I’ve decided to live my life.