Measurables & Unmeasurables

Measurables & Unmeasurables


I live in a three-sided bedroom. Think a saltine cracker box with the end torn out. The little white wood banister, across the open wall, torn from the old home’s front porch, keeps my guests from toppling down three stories, but it doesn’t keep out all the rain, leaves, or frost. I might be the only girl in the South who wakes up after a thunderstorm and thinks, Shoot, I’ve got to sweep up the leaves. And you think raking your yard is bad.

Anyway, the joke is that I don’t “live in-the-box.” And some of my friends call me a free spirit.

But, other than the days I cancel my plans to pick wild flowers, I don’t feel like a free spirit. I usually feel like a stuck spirit. A deer-in-the-headlights soul who can’t decide what to strive for. An impressive job title? A cushy feeling when I log into my online banking account? The red-hot Jeep for sale that I pass on the way to work every day? An apartment with four walls and central air and heat? Good, ol’-fashioned love?

I was walking around town the other night thinking about an adjunct position I’d taken to pay off my college loans. It didn’t work out as well as I expected because when I estimated the numbers in my head, I blissfully dismissed taxes, and rounded all my debts in the wrong direction. Now I was disappointed. But instead of being mad about taxes (and the obvious reason I struggled in algebra), I felt glad for the things I learned through the job.

However, feeling successful didn’t feel right. Because, after all, I didn’t reach The Goal.

* * *

When I was barely a teenager, and my girl friends were discovering the world of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, I was setting S.M.A.R.T. goals. In retrospect, my goals were Specific and Measurable. But Attainable, Realistic, and Timely were based purely on my personal expectations. Though my relationship with Goals has morphed over the past decade, despite an interlude following a nasty break-up during my college years, we’ve mostly maintained a solid, though high-tension, bond.

Walking around the city park, I started thinking about measurable goals. Most of the things we invest our life in, the things we think are important—money, numbers on the scale, cars, and stuff—are measurable. It’s easy because there’s no debating if I have reached a goal or not. I have the sweet Jeep, or I don’t. I have college loans, or I don’t. I have the job title that I flaunt every given chance, or I don’t. I have an enviable number of cool brothers and sisters, or…well, I do.

And in every case, I’ll create a higher goal as soon as I meet my present one. Including the cool brothers and sisters. You’d think eight would be enough, but heck no. I even upped that goal one year for my New Year’s resolution. (My sweet mama said I should have consulted her before making a goal that required participation on her part.)

Anyway, the stuff we wrap our lives around is usually quantifiable. But the things that wise old sages say are most important in our lives—humor, authenticity, peace, intentionality, hospitality, respect, passion, deep friendships, contribution—are not. We can’t nail down a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goal for having accomplished gratitude or health. Bum deal.

These unmeasurable, intangible qualities take a lifetime to attain. They go on and on; I can’t ever check them off as “Done.” This is a difficult concept for me to accept.

When I thought about this, about how Stuff is concrete and measurable while Qualities are complex and not measurable, I noticed that Stuff has limits, but Qualities do not. There is a cap on the amount of Stuff possible to have. But Qualities—each based on a foundational principle—don’t have limits.

The catch is that it’s the Qualities, not Stuff, that make or break my life.

* * *

I started my second lap around the park thinking about the way that children see life, in concrete terms. Life is so simple when you’re a child, they say. Yeah, but who wants to go back? I don’t. When I was a child, my biggest frustration in life was grappling with the unknown x in pre-algebra. Being a child was fantastic in that I only thought about the solid things that we could throw at each other. It was simple. But as a child, I couldn’t grasp big, abstract ideas. However, it was the concrete ideas that helped me transition into an overwhelming world of complex ideas.

One thing I do miss about childhood is spankings, or “pops” as my parents called them. I disobeyed my sweet mama, slapped my brother, or lied, and I got a pop. Then it was over. Now, I disobey the speed limit and I’m writing a check for $250. I lie now, and my character is on probation. I would just like the pops back, please. Pops were my parents’ way of helping my midget brain understand the concept of Cause and Effect on an efficient time frame.

I wondered if Stuff mindsets and Quality mindsets are similar to concrete thinking and complex thinking. If, in the way that concrete thinking prepares a child for abstract understanding, a world of “measurable” Stuff helps us transition to a life focused on unmeasurable, immaterial Qualities.

There is a parallel between Stuff/Qualities mindsets and concrete/complex reasoning in terms of training and learning. The lag time between the cause and the effect with Stuff is short. When I spend all my money, I’m broke, and when I practice Ping-Pong every day, I beat the freshman whippersnappers at school. It’s like a grown-up lesson in Cause and Effect.

But the results of Qualities—joy, freedom, creativity, hard work—or lack of them, cut deeper, or make life richer. And it takes so much longer to notice the repercussions.

And in the same way that concrete thinking helps us transition to complex reasoning, Stuff could point to a life of Qualities. Maybe even, the purpose of Stuff is to help us develop more Qualities.

* * *

Often though, I realized, we get stuck in the world of measurable Stuff because it is easiest to control and understand. And the consequences feel more urgent. On my third lap, I thought of how I prefer Stuff goals, and how successful I always think I’ll feel when I’m done. I thought about how there is a cap on everything—all potential has a limit. And about how more Stuff for one person means less for Stuff for another.

Qualities are the opposite. You can have as many Qualities and as much of any Quality as you want, and the more you have, the more the people around you usually have. And I wondered what my life would look like if I made it my ambition to collect Qualities. Maybe life would be more unlimited, the way I imagine the life of a free spirit.

Maybe a lifetime focused on collecting Qualities is the definition of truly living an out-of-the-box life, not sleeping in an open, three-walled bedroom.