Why We Are Always Trying to Measure Up

“What am I supposed to do with this?” my friend demands, referring to the recipe I emailed.

“It’s soup,” I reply, thinking that sufficient.

“There are no measurements!”

“Just go with your gut. Sauté a bunch of onions, add enough broth, as many veggies as you can stand to chop up, then when they’ve cooked a while, throw in the rest with a pinch of salt and quite a few grinds of black pepper.”

“This,” she said in a grim tone, “is the difference between us.”

Jo bakes, exquisitely. She measures like a sane chemist. I treasure old recipes, the kind that ask for a pinch or a handful and maybe a dram of bourbon for flavor. Better yet, I like no recipe at all. I tend to cook better that way, free of the anxiety of influence. When it works, my husband says dolefully, “This was great. And I’ll never have it again.”

“Nope, not exactly,” I agree. The pleasures of food should be ephemeral, not boilerplate. Except with prescription drugs, I prefer to avoid measuring whenever possible. Women have been reduced to their “measurements” for centuries, corseting or dieting to hit 36-24-36. And “taking the measure of a man” rarely bodes well for him. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot’s tentative narrator admits, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” Cringing at the thought, I promptly stopped measuring coffee at all. Now I just dump it in until the filter looks replete. Not once have I balanced a checkbook—or bounced a check. I feel my way through the expenditures and let angst curb my spending.

Measuring is too often a way not to trust—ourselves or others. We watch like a hawk while clerks weigh our produce or measure out our yardage from a bolt of fabric. We rely on scales and clocks and calculators to tell us what we ought to already know, just by living. And, like the inchworm measuring the marigolds, we miss a lot of beauty.

Measurement stops cold at beauty. It prefers control. Years ago, I listened to a boss explain an elaborate new employee review system with performance objectives, subsidiary goals, and point values attached to each. Our work was meant to be creative and was therefore highly subjective. But with the new system, instead of spending time trying to come up with more clever words and images, people began to use those hours to create PowerPoint presentations that documented the work they were doing, aligning the slideshow with the performance objectives, counting up the numbers of words written, hours spent, favorable comments. All this took as much time as the work itself.

Attempting to quantify something subjective, like creativity or cleverness, is elusive, exhausting, and often misleading. But it is an easy out for bosses who have no clue what their subordinates really do or what would make it better. It is also an easy way to scold or reward with the illusion of objective fairness. “Well of course Buffy got the raise. She earned more points on her first-quarter objectives.” Also, she flatters the boss subtly and often, but that is not listed on the objectives and is thus irrelevant. “Why are you so negative about Buffy?”

Like the old cookbooks, performance appraisals require someone to really understand what they have to work with, what will improve the result, and how to make that happen. But measurement is an easy substitute, injecting a pseudo-scientific credibility. The hyperreliance on measurement feels Western to me, although every civilization has established units of measure for purposes of exchange and comparison. The first ruler was a copper alloy measuring rod fashioned around 2650 BCE. No doubt it was useful. Precision has its place, and an agreed-upon means of assessment is critical.

But an excessive reliance on measurement can create an illusion of objectivity and control that is not always accurate.

Galileo started us off when he urged us to “make measurable what cannot be measured.” Lord Kelvin insisted that “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Why is it critical to learn the precise size, amount, or degree of something? STEM requires it. But the habit has bled into everyday life, and by now we have so many ways to evaluate and compare ourselves that we are constantly worried about measuring up. Told what we weigh or how high our blood sugar is, we nervously ask what is “normal.” Instead of walking until we are tired, we count our steps. Instead of diving into an essay, we check the estimated reading time at the top.

All sorts of errors are possible in measurement: systemic errors, instrumental errors, environmental errors, observational errors…yet the simple act of measuring gives us (often false) confidence. We jump to action or conclusions, forgetting that wood swells; that muscle weighs more than fat; that nerves can spike a heart rate; that Einstein got lousy grades. Soon we have magic numbers: Therapists tell people to spend thirty minutes a day being grateful or an hour every week cuddling; doctors urge eight hours of sleep and eight glasses of water. We follow Protagoras’s cocky insistence that “man is the measure of all things” and bend everything around us to our will, racking up whatever statistics will prove our case.

The New Testament had fun pointing out the folly of measuring and comparing: “Judge not, that you be not judged,” we read in Matthew 7:1. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” We are told to forgive “not seven times, but seventy times seven”; why mete it out so stingily? Wine and loaves and fishes all multiply; we are to love others as we love ourselves, which is abundantly; and if someone compels us to walk a mile with him, we are to walk two. But secular society reverts to the Old Testament’s eye-for-an-eye, updating it with arguments over how much a death or injury should be “worth” in a civil lawsuit. The group Nakam wanted to kill six million Germans as revenge for the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. In 2017, after a woman had acid thrown on her, Iran’s sharia law offered her the opportunity to have her attacker blinded by acid. Admittedly, these are extreme examples, but even everyday justice often stops at tit-for-tat.

Yet as distorting, dangerous, or petty, or silly as various forms of calculus can be, there is still grace in a measured approach. The need to slow down, take care, and be precise adds steadiness and reliability to a project. Unlike my culinary masterpieces, what is done can be reproduced. (And maybe that is why I resist measuring, to give myself wiggle room if I still cannot pull it off.) A child’s height can be penciled on the doorframe, the growth spurts celebrated. Treatment results can be tracked. Measurement allows us to communicate physical facts and proceed from a common starting point. It keeps us disciplined, like the seven almonds Barack Obama counts out every evening as his snack. Were I Michelle, this would madden me. From a distance, I can grudgingly admire his restraint.

But I still maintain that, overused, measurement drowns out intuition and prevents us from deeper exploration. We forget how to feel our way, trust our instincts. And we go to absurd lengths trying to quantify what cannot be counted.

Not everything is made to measure.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.