A few weeks ago, I camped with Blake, an internet stranger I met recently, while he was hiking the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and we had a great conversation about maximizing (his term) and metricizing (my term). We were getting at similar but slightly different things, so I’ll do my best to describe our discussion below.
We were talking about our respective experiences on the PCT. Blake started but did not finish the PCT in 2005. I attempted a section hike from Trail Pass to Lake Tahoe but experienced social shock and ended up pivoting to sample some of the Sierra High Route. Funnily enough, Blake has actually done most of the Sierra High Route, and we were able to connect to that. (If you like the mountains, in particular the High Sierra, you might enjoy The High Sierra: A Love Story by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I devoured after Blake recommended it to me.)
On-trail on the PCT, Blake recalls some hikers’ “thru-hiker mentality”, by which he meant a focus on the number of miles hiked each day, gear weight, and what gear they had purchased. I also met people like this, and meeting them helped me realize that perhaps I was playing a different game than they were, that I was seeking something different from my time in the mountains. It turns the PCT into an athletic competition of sorts, which isn’t at all what I was looking for from the trail.
At the same time, we both agreed how easy it was to slip into “maximizer” thinking ourselves. To hike more miles each day for the sake of hiking more miles. Interestingly, when hiking off-trail, we agreed this desire goes away. It’s no longer about miles, it’s about navigating terrain, finding the best way up a mountain pass. In The High Sierra: A Love Story, Kim Stanley Robinson describes how one summer he met some hikers who were so enamored with the High Sierra that they decided to spend the summer hiking off-trail in the High Sierra instead of finishing the PCT. It was nice to read that others came to similar conclusions!
We talked about how maximizing shows up in other parts of life, like school and parenting. Traditional schooling is, of course, one of the worst offenders. Sadly, getting the very best grades and test scores also leads to things like financial assistance and admission into good universities, so it’s a game many have to play. I certainly did! Scholarships paid for my college. However, getting really good at maximizing for school left me rudderless as I needed to figure our where I wanted to live, what kind of job I wanted, and whether I should get a masters degree. The only thing I knew how to do was maximize results within a game with clear rules and scores. And life isn’t like that at all.
Peter Drucker wrote¹ “What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.” I’ve heard this discussed in business, but not as often in personal life. This is precisely what I mean by “metricizing” - once you have picked a metric in life to optimize, you’ll optimize it, even if it is not helpful.
I see this desire to metricize life everywhere. There are unofficial and official competitions everywhere with accompanying metrics. Bike rides and runs on Strava. School scores. Home prices. Thru-hikes, and even number of thru-hikes completed in one year. Twitter advice about how to squeeze the most hours from each day. Likes on social media. How many minutes to get sunlight in your eyes in the morning. For someone like me with a tendency to optimize for a novel metric, it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed.
I first became disillusioned with metricizing at work. Working in software, I’ve often worked with hardcore metricizers. Many software engineers that have been put in management or leadership positions idolize the use of measurement and data, and some are so uncomfortable with things that cannot be measured that they fully ignore things that cannot be measured, despite the fact that many important things are really hard to measure. While I am also a software engineer, I don’t worship metrics in the same way as other engineers I’ve met. I once worked with an engineer who was trying to figure out the right way to think about product design, and he settled on “pixel output” as the unit of measurement. Any great designer I’ve worked with would balk at such an idea. Some projects require much more time researching and understanding the problem, and relatively less time producing visual designs and “pixels”. Even engineers cannot be measured by lines of code output, though it’s a more reasonable measure for engineers than for designers.
I’ve come into many projects mid-way where many designs had been created and many lines of code had been written. Based simply on metrics, the projects were going well. However, all of the work had to be scrapped because they hadn’t thought about the problem clearly from the beginning. The end result, after taking time to think about the best solution, was simpler to design and to code than anything that had been built so far. Of the high quality software projects I am proud to have built or worked on, none of them were great because of a metric or framework that was employed. They were great because the people involved cared about building something useful, because they cared about each other, and because at least one person was taking the time to think clearly about what the team was trying to solve instead of just accomplishing lists of tasks.
It took me longer to become disillusioned with metrics in my personal life. I think I just didn’t realize that whenever I was faced with difficulty, I would turn to a metric or a framework. Feeling tired? Maybe I need to follow Andrew Huberman’s advice about getting a certain number of minutes of sunlight in my eyes in the morning. Not making progress on a side project? Maybe I need to follow the advice from Grit and create a goal hierarchy for my life. There are hundreds of other examples like this from my life. Few of these techniques worked for me and resulted in any meaningful change to my life.
Recently, I finally realized that I might need a different approach. I set out to hike a section of the PCT last year, which I planned meticulously, only to have several “what am I doing out here” moments. I had thought about all the aspects of the trail that could be measured (food, miles per day, snowpack), but I hadn’t actually considered what I really wanted from the experience. I set out to build a new product and become a founder, only to question my motivations once I was several months in. I remember going on a walk first thing in the morning for several weeks to get sunlight exposure, per Huberman’s recommendation, and while I did have a bit more energy in the morning, it didn’t really help me achieve anything more with my days.
All of this isn’t to say that metrics don’t have their place, of course they do. I will measure the usage of a new feature I build for a software project. I will measure the lengths of my training hikes in preparation for my next long backpacking trip. I will measure where my money is going if money is tight. But I no longer expect metrics and frameworks to give me all the answers for the hard problems in life.
1: Apparently it is contested whether or not he wrote or said this.