Precise measurement offers momentary insight into how an area of life should change. After a certain amount of information is known, incessant measuring itself becomes a distraction from tasks that have the power to turn a larger vision in the right direction.
A Brief Love Letter To Math
Math is ancient. Math is a beast. The most revolutionary formulas known to math and science were here long before humans discovered them and they will be here long after we are gone.
Math exists independent of conscious thought. It’s not here to flatter or offend. It’s stoic. It’s running the show.
Occasionally it surfaces to reveal what a striking engine it is for the universe. If you're lucky, you'll realized it's offered you a chance to haphazardly ride along before decomposing you atom by atom.
What Does This Have To Do With My Grocery Bill?
It took me a while to realize we all form a relationship with the important numbers in our lives.
- Are you someone who thinks ignorance is bliss?
- Are you someone evaluating your worth with numbers when you can’t trust your inherent value?
- Are you someone who has found a middle-ground for operating? Can numbers be a handy gauge but not impact your self-esteem?
I’ve obsessed over numbers big and small and then switched to ignoring their presence altogether.
In both cases, numbers intersected with my humanity to impact me immensely. My conclusion? In most cases, less awareness of exact numbers adds up to a more meaningful life. Here’s why.
Precision Gone Wrong
“At one point, Frank Loyd Wright offered his son John a salary for working as an assistant on several projects. When John asked him to be paid, Wright sent him a bill itemizing the total amount of money that John had cost over the course of his life, from birth to present.”
- Give and Take by Adam Grant
Needless to say, I’m not impressed with Wright’s specificity here. In fact, it kind of makes him look like a jerk. Maybe he should have been using his time to meet his contract deadlines instead? (To my own non-jerk credit, I stopped calculating the exact cost of my child after one year. We try to be sustainable, we try to be frugal, and a ballpark estimate is all I need to know in order to confidently meet his needs.)
Things I No Longer Measure
I don’t own a scale. I’m weighed at the doctor’s office and that’s good enough.
I don’t pay attention to the size of my pants. I’m a different size depending on whatever brand wants to flatter me the most. (Have you learned about vanity sizing? It’s where companies try to dupe you into buying their clothes because you can be a smaller size in them.)
I don’t routinely count calories, the items in my house, the number of friends I have, or how many kilometers I’ve scrolled on my phone.
I wasn’t always this way. I used to cling to numbers to provide meaning in a world of chaos.
And I still love numbers. But not as much as I love ideas.
Lessons From Numbers: Music and Health
Music taught me a lot about how to operate in the world - math and otherwise. Music theory is a tunnel to move through where both sides are experienced about the same.
If you are operating in a mind where you can trust yourself - if you are operating with a firm understanding of formulas and rules - then numbers provide an underlying framework but they are mostly forgotten.
Numbers often fall into place once a critical threshold of understanding has been met.
When I look back at the use of strict measurement in my life, it was mostly employed during times of terrible functioning.
In a large number of cases, numbers are viewed at a microscopic level when something is going horribly wrong.
For example, when a human recovers from a terrible health scare, they are weighed frequently. Their temperature, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc. are taken daily for months straight. Numbers are plotted meticulously by professionals on a graph - because something is off.
White blood cell count? The cabin pressure in an airplane? The amount of fuel left in a tank? If I’m being told exact numbers, I should probably be worried.
And if you hear a musician counting out loud in the middle of a song? Something is probably going wrong.
An Underrated Milesone
When it comes to health and music, becoming less specific with numbers appears to be a milestone to celebrate.
Less specificity represents operating on a higher level of automaticity and integration. This allows the mind and body to create conditions of flow.
Operating with awareness instead of exact measurement communicates a mode of reasonable, responsible, and balanced functioning that doesn’t need to be monitored to be sustained.
The numbers fade into the background, and something more complete emerges.
"I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I'll always hear my name
Then onward in my journey, I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand”
- Bob Dylan
Do you have an area of your life where you’ve become less specific with numbers? What has been the impact on your well-being? Where do you put your attention instead?
Next week, I’ll discuss why systems are more important than exact numbers in many cases. I’ll also rummage through some head games I still play when math is a distraction from meaning.