4 Things that Can’t Be Counted

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Over the past few weeks at work, I’ve been trying to devise appropriate metrics for my team’s efforts in the coming quarters. This altogether practical effort has repeatedly led me back to an important philosophical point:  Many things that matter can’t be counted.

To give just a few examples, here are four things that are clearly not countable but that are nonetheless immeasurably important to me:

1. How mint chocolate chip ice cream tastes when you sit beside your daughter on the curb and you both let it melt on your tongues.

2. How my mother used to say “hi, Steven” when she heard my voice on the phone.

3. The experience of kicking a ball into exactly the space you intended, without ever really thinking about the kicking, the ball, or the space.

4. The way my wife laughs when something is really funny–so hard that she has to close her eyes and can’t quite catch her breath.

Each of these things is inherently qualitative: it’s hard to imagine how counting them, or counting their constituent parts, would ever really help us understand them. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine ever accurately measuring them. You can’t put them on a scale or wrap a tape measure around them; the standard units of measure–inches, pounds, gallons, decibels, etc.–are wholly unsuited to them.

When you get right down to it, they aren’t really “things” at all. They’re the complex hows of things, the intricately interwoven responses that interacting entities evoke. They are subjective rather than objective, feely rather than touchy, emergent rather than elemental.

And yet they strike me as undeniably real. The unique experience of mint chocolate chip ice cream melting over my tongue, at a particular place and time, with my daughter beside me, is exactly the sort of thing real life consists of. And the fact that such an experience is literally immeasurable–that it can’t be reduced to a set of digits, and can only be roughly gestured at with words–does not in any way diminish its reality or importance.

On the contrary, the marvelous immeasurability of “mint-chocolate-chip-in-this-moment” points to two conclusions:

  • Reality continually outstrips our attempts to measure it; and
  • We tend to mistake the measures we take for the richer, deeper realities unfolding beneath, between, and beyond them.

We get so caught up counting trees that we cannot see–much less smell or hear or feel–the forests. Then we tell ourselves that the forests are defined by the numbers of trees (or branches, or leaves, or photosynthesizing cells). Meanwhile, we fail to notice the roots that weave the forest into one, much less the fungi that actually enable it to speak to itself (seriously, this is a thing).

We lose track of the fact that reality, in the end, isn’t just a gigantic pile of parts. It’s a whole ongoing interaction. And we aren’t watching it from the outside, with lab coats on and measuring tapes in hand. We’re caught up in the dance.

The act of counting is one–often hugely helpful–way to keep up with the beat. But there are always others. And the counts alone are never the whole truth.

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