Why I care about numbers
March 21, 2014
If you have worked with me, you know that I am not obsessed, but at least very, very interested in numerical measurements of performance. I have even been called, occasionally, a “math guy”.
That is a really weird place for me to have ended up, because I have to use a calculator every time a I leave a tip.
In college, I was a classics major. In particular, I concentrated on classical philology, the study of historical language.
ὣς εἰπὼν ὑπ᾽ ὄχεσφι τιτύσκετο χαλκόποδ᾽ ἵππω
ὠκυπέτα χρυσέῃσιν ἐθείρῃσιν κομόωντε
And having spoken, he harnessed to his chariot his horses, bronze-footed,
swift of flight, with long, golden manes
Homer, Iliad, 8.41
Specific areas that interested me include etymology (the origins of words, in my case especially across languages) and morphology (how individual word-pieces combine to make up meanings).
I think I was interested in these areas because words have always seemed like toys to me, by which I mean “objects of play”, not “things that are insignificant.” In having that attitude, and in developing it through my studies in college and afterward, I also developed a much sharper sense of how empty words are, in a very specific way: we interpret them as having great meaning, but in fact any particular word is an almost random combination of sounds. What about the word “ocean” has to do with an ocean? There’s a big difference between what is signified and the signifier.
Of course words have the power to inspire and to change the world. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, we are our own novels. And of course,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Words are powerful. But for me there’s a big missing piece without something to prove them.
In mentioning that, I think a lot about my previous employment at what was then a startup agricultural nonprofit. A deeply admirable organization, with not great marketing, but an intense focus on impact and on numbers.
And in this case, those numbers mean the difference between life and death for the African farmers One Acre Fund serves. Could their marketing be better and should One Acre Fund be a household name? No doubt. But their actual impact is enormous. One of the things for which I most admire that organization is their attitude that if the impact wasn’t happening, they were failing, and must improve.
Words are incredibly important for creating a narrative and giving meaning to things we all experience. That’s important to me, but it’s not enough. Numbers provide you a more concrete measurement of what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve changed in the world. You really need both. The numbers give us proof; the words give us meaning.