Kosslyn: Numbers can’t measure life

I would like to invent a stressometer. A barometer of sorts, it would quantify campus stress levels. The semester’s jittery curve would inch downward from a high start, stabilize for a month and spike around the middle of the term. For midterm exams are now upon us and we are anxious about our scores.

We are stressed because we are about to be reduced to numbers. A friend of mine, studying for his economics midterm, realized that just as the sweat, blood and tears of countries is reduced to a GDP, his intelligence, motivation and competence would be reduced to a GPA. Raw red numbers scrawled on graded midterms, little summaries of himself. GPA matters for post-college possibilities, but the stressometer’s spike is also caused by identity crises. “I’m not the kind of person who gets below a 90,” we fret, “so my score on this midterm better be high!”

Yet the numbers derive from bursts of frenzied scribbling, not our worth as human beings.

Midterm scores are not the only way we conflate numbers with identity. Too many of us seniors understand ourselves through how many companies give us first-round interviews, second-round interviews and job offers. Take, for example, another friend who had been neglecting to prepare for the interviews he had been offered, preferring to spend his time applying to additional companies in which he was not even interested. He was hurting his chances of getting a good job in favor of driving up his interview count! He caught on to that subconscious tendency, though, and stepped away from self-destructively pursuing meaningless numbers.

The blurry line between our numbers and our selves is not restricted to academics and job seeking: even our social lives have been quantified and internalized. Look at Facebook. Though it has some practical utility — looking up cell phone numbers, organizing events and playing the dating game — there is more to it. I have an acquaintance who once admitted a druglike buzz with each new friend request, as her friend count increases by one.

What is going on here? It only makes sense if you think about what that friend count means: It is a scoreboard, a definitive quantitative answer to that abiding question, “Am I popular?” Similarly, the number of photos we appear in and the volume of posts on our wall quantify aspects of our social Monopoly money.

Yet whenever we try to count our blessings, we fail to account for everything. In the case of GDP, Robert F. Kennedy said it best. The Gross Domestic Product, he once explained, “counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Just so, the grade point average counts the gut you hated and the seminar in which you did a personal favor for the professor. It does not account for comforting the bereaved friend the night before the midterm, nor does it indicate the unorthodox answer the TA disliked. The quantity of job offers likewise counts joylessworkplaces, careers that lead to emptiness and poor cultural fits.

The friend count, meanwhile, includes casual acquaintances and withered friendships, distant associates and former classmates. But the count fails to quantify the strength of those relationships, the character of the friends or the warmth of shared experiences. Your friend count measures everything, except whether you can count on your friends.

Numbers cannot tell us who we are, yet we keep trying to understand ourselves through them anyway. I am as guilty of this as the next man. Heck, I even want a stressometer to quantify the stress caused by quantification.

We need to put numbers in perspective. People are not numbers; Facebook friend counts are insubstantial. Numbers are not destiny; GPAs and interview counts are, at best, loosely correlated with long-term satisfaction.

And at the end of the day no gravestone reads, “John Smith, 1987–2041, 3.78 GPA, five first-round interviews, 424 Facebook friends.”

Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.


  • Terrie

    Thank you for writing this important reminder of what counts.

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