On Metrics, Part 1 of 3 million
Amy Writes Words, #20
It’s a hard week for me. The precipice of the solstice approaches. I’ve had to move my morning writing hours from 9-11 to 10-12. My heart is frozen.
I’ve been thinking about my essay last week. As I remarked on Twitter, no one wanted to touch that thing. Few comments, few retweets, hardly any likes. Mostly just a strange and unsettling silence. The story the metrics told could not have been more clear: that post was a very bad way to build my brand.
“It was edgy,” said Max. “You’ve always been edgy.”
Late the other night I found myself staring at the analytics for a tweet of mine. “‘View Tweet Activity’ is like staring directly into the abyss,” I wrote in my journal.
My most popular tweets have been jokes tacked on to jokes other people have made, usually about poop. Clever dances, poop jokes, cats: that’s what makes you popular on the internet.
In November 2012 I spent about a week in the locked ward at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where I was three times given electroconvulsive therapy. (See my other newsletter, Woe, this week, for more). When I was not getting ECT I mainly cried, and when I was not crying I read Mary Oliver poems out loud to some other people in the ward.
Psych wards are, at their best, dull. People sit in the common room all day doing nothing, arguing lackadaisically over the television, waiting their turn on the Windows 95 computer set up in the corner next to the community fridge people will steal your food out of. People will listen to anything you say that is not unpleasant. They are tired, they are medicated, they are down on their luck. They’re here for the first time or the thirtieth. They don’t know what’s coming next. It’s a liminal place.
What was coming next for me was Thanksgiving dinner.
It was a big meal with a lot of people. Many of those people knew where I’d just been, and none of them mentioned it. I felt the pressure of that silence building and building, and simultaneously the noise of my unacceptable condition growing louder and louder in my head. For the silence wasn’t really silence; it was not an absence of thoughts or feelings or ideas about the fact of my hospitalization, the existence of my insanity, the trauma I had been through, the death that had occurred. Behind the silence was a refusal, a no shouted at the reality of what had happened to me, a no attempting to erase those facts, which I felt as an attempt to erase me.
It was because of that that I yelled at everyone. I don’t remember exactly what I yelled. Maybe Max does. It would have been something like “Is anyone going to even ask me about how I am? Acknowledge I was just in the hospital because I was too crazy to be out and about in the world? Because my friend died? Anyone?… Anyone?...”
The analytics on my presence at that Thanksgiving dinner were abysmal.
Do I and my thoughts exist?
Sometimes I wonder if I exist right now, inside my closet, saying the things I feel called to say rather than ones I think other people want me to say.
I had that feeling when I sent my missive last week — nobody wants me to have said those things, because when I said them I made them real, and if they are real then they might have to think about what they mean.
Someone messaged me: “Your newsletter is ruining/saving my life.”
A friend said: “Someday the people who were taken aback are gonna thank you. They're gonna tell you it was a jagged pill but once it got lodged in their throat they couldn't get it out. Until years later they made some new choices.”
One more quote from Czesław Miłosz, who had not wanted to leave Poland at all, who stayed for as long as he could before he came to the U.S.:
My own decision proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach. A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt.
My stomach has been in revolt for a while now, so here I am, in exile.
I have been meaning to write an essay about metrics, about the tyranny of metrics, about the way measurement has infected every aspect of our lives, taken a place it should not. But it’s a long essay, or six, or three million. (Or a book of poems. I’m not sure yet. I only see the next thing to do, not the things after that.)
“Measure what matters”, you say. Shall we measure love, then?
When one of my children was very young, they said to me “I love you like salt”. I do not think you could conceive a measurement that conveys the love of a child for their mother better than that sentence does.
The metrics on last week’s post were abysmal, but I trust in the words I wrote, I trust that when I send words into the world they will move the world. I can’t measure that movement. I see maybe a tiny piece of it, a sliver of analytics. Sometimes years later something I wrote will come back to me and I will catch a glimpse of the part of the iceberg that is submerged, everything that can’t be measured not only because it is hidden but because it is made out of things that are immeasurable. Love. Doubt. Trust. Change. Hope. Solidarity.
Sure, we can slap a score on things:
“How much anxiety did you feel when I asked you to consider that you might be lying to yourself about your work?” I could ask. What even is the right answer there?
“Fuck you and your hard questions. Unsubscribe!”
“I quietly forwarded this to three friends with commentary ‘ugh’ and then I poured myself some scotch.”
“I retweeted it even though I was scared.”
None of those answers would tell me precisely what I would like to know, which is precisely how much difference my words might make in the Grand Scheme of Things, over a long stretch of time. The unsubscriber might turn out to be the person who years later does something different because of the words, and the different thing might be a very important different thing. While the enthusiastic retweeter may go on doing all the things they were doing anyways. I don’t know.
I just finished up recording a talk, for Rubyconf, about debugging product teams. In the talk I make a case for accepting the limitations of your observations and your influence, I say it again and again. I am very concerned that people not burn themselves up trying to change things that are outside of their control.
And yet here I am saying something different: that I take on faith that I am having some kind of impact that cannot be measured and that I may never know. In the one place I’m arguing for the acceptance of limited impact, and in the other, right here, I’m arguing that impact is hard to measure and I believe that mine is bigger than I can see.
Why are these two different messages? I asked myself. So I have been pondering that.
They are two different messages because the purpose and timescale of the problems are different. The lifetime of a job or a product team or a business is short. The lifetime of the universe is long. I’m not managing teams right now, I don’t need to ship anything by Q4. What I’m doing right now is something different and I’m not in any hurry to get results.
I’m blowing on dandelions. Sure, I’m breathing flames, so the dandelion fluff is on fire. But mostly I just hope to make more dandelions grow. Plant a seed of fiery fluff in some hearts and see what comes up in the spring, and the spring after that, and the one after that. Recognize that these fire-type dandelions I’m spreading will go places I haven’t been, evolve into Pokémon I have never seen, who have powers I can’t imagine and will win battles I would never have the chance to fight myself.1 Believe in that.
That, my friends, is my hope in the dark. That I can sit here on the floor of my closet surrounded by too many shoes, and write some words that touch people, plant seeds, strike sparks, move the world. Because things are scary and we need to do some things differently, we all know it. We all see it, even if we don’t want to. Who wants to see this shitty reality we’ve got? It hurts too much to see it straight.
It hurts me too. But what good are we to ourselves, to each other, to our children, to the world, if we can’t look just a little, see all the systems we’re stuck in and how little influence we might have, but trust that our influence is not nothing, that even as Individual Contributors, as it were, we can do something different, we can hold hands and try something else.
I’m looking for a middle path. We can’t just burn it all down. We can’t pretend everything is okay, either. We need to make space for something different and help each other get there. It probably means some small things, like community fridges, like guerrilla gardening. And some big things, like regulations.
I will never be able to take the full measure of my impact in this matter, and that’s okay. And it’s not that I don’t measure tangible things when my scope of action is, well, everything -- I do. I measure myself by the words I’m sending out into the world, I make sure I send them. But once I have sent them, I can rest. It’s up to you and the rest of creation what happens to the words when they have left my drafts and wound up in your inbox. My Yom Kippur lesson this year was about this, what I can control and what I can’t. A slip of paper in one box reads “whether I say things that seem to me to be true and perhaps useful” and a slip of paper in the other reads “what other people do with the things that I say”:
The reason I argue for the acceptance of limitations with regard to the impact you can have on the performance of product teams is that most of the time the performance of product teams is not something worth wasting your faith on. If I’m going to be crazy and claim we aren’t all just absolutely doomed, that the world has a chance (and I am going to do that, because I am in fact crazy), then I’m going to put my faith where it counts. I’m going to put it in people.
I’m going to put my faith in you.
Go watch this video and maybe you’ll see what I mean. And then why not blow on a dandelion and quietly forward this email to three friends?
Upcoming: I’ll be giving a talk (remotely) at Rubyconf 2021, on debugging product teams. If this sounds interesting to you just smash that reply button and let me know and I’ll make sure you’re one of the first people to hear when it goes live.
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yes I am sure my understanding of the Pokémon universe is incorrect thank you for telling me so but please give me credit for trying. Look, I know there are fire-types and that they evolve! They have powers and fight battles!