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The love of money isn’t the root of all evil; arithmetic is the root of all evil. More specifically, counting.

Don’t get me wrong; counting was a wonderful invention. It has its uses. We can keep track of kids: “Are all 5 kids here? Let’s see, 1… 2… 3… 4… where’s Billy?” We can keep track of time. “He’s working overtime in the salt mines, honey. Instead of 12 hours, he’s working 14 hours today. He’ll be home at … 9, 10. Yes, 10 p.m.” And we can keep track of money: “He gets paid $1.49/hour working overtime, so our bank balance will be $11.37 … $12.37 … $13.37 … $13.86 after Billy gives us his share.” In fact, they remind us over and over in MBA school that “What gets measured, gets managed.”

So where’s the problem? This is evil? This gave us the industrial-friggin’-revolution. This sounds great!!

We measure the wrong stuff

Well, the problem starts when we choose what to measure. We often measure what doesn’t lead to our goal, and expect the measuring to magically create the managing.

Want profit? Let’s count expenses. Tell all managers to submit weekly reports of their team’s expenses. Let’s call it a TPS Report, and count how many TPS reports people send, to make sure they’re doing their job (which has silently morphed from “running a profitable business” to “submitting TPS reports”). Well, whoopie. We’ve added a whole layer of useless counting, and then another layer to count who is and isn’t counting. Since we don’t actually know what to do with the silly TPS report, we slide further from profitability. We’re counting the wrong thing.

Or how about sick days? There’s a hoot. “You only get six sick days.” Nice. Like that’s controllable. If you’re sick for seven days, come on in and give it to everyone else in your department, so everyone has to take six days off. You can measure sick days, but the measure is useless.

Seemingly meaningful measurements … aren’t

Then we make up measurements that mean nothing and try to manage those. “Let’s rank our employees. Then we can fire the bottom 10%.” Sounds easy; isn’t easy. (Sadly, however, it is a much-publicized Jack Welch policy.) How much time will managers spend on this ranking exercise? Do they apply consistent standards that are directly related to the company’s goals? Do we fire the 10% of managers whose ranking skill is in the bottom 10%? Who decides that?

Ranking is hard. Really hard. In fact, in 1963, psychologist George Miller’s famous paper “The Magic Number 7 +/- 2” presented results showing people can make ranking distinctions between 5 to 9 items, and then we pretty much lose track. If you think you can accurately rank a 250-person department, you’re deluded and thus in the bottom 10%; it’s time to pack your bags.

Even if you can rank, can you use the rankings for action? We want to punt the bottom 10% of the company. We can’t really compare an accountant against a design engineer, so our fresh new Harriford MBA, Darren, suggests we eliminate 10% of each department. That will add up to 10% of the company.

But what if our 30 design engineers rock, while our 30 accountants all suck eggs? As a company, we want to fire six accountants (10% of 60 employees) and no design engineers. But firing 10% of each department means we leave three mediocre accountants standing, and three rockin’ design engineers out of work. That’s clearly wrong. But we get one benefit: we know Darren didn’t understand the logic of firing, so we know he’s in the bottom 10% and should be fired. Success! We have at least one confirmed cost savings from this exercise.

Measurement turns us evil

I know you’re asking: what in heaven’s name does this have to do with spirituality, morality, and/or the rest of our lives? (If you weren’t asking that, don’t worry, just go with the flow.)

Here’s where the evil comes in. We only measure so we can make decisions about those measurements and change our behavior. But we do this by judging the measurements as “good” or “bad.” When we’re measuring a “bad” trend, we panic. We’re afraid. We’re angry. We get frustrated, anxious, mean, jealous, violent, and nasty.

How do people act when they feel anxious, mean, jealous, violent, and nasty? Fortunately, we live in a Highly Evolved Society, so we meditate for five minutes, do some yoga, and we’re fine. NOT! Most people want to get rid of the bad feelings. Some fudge the numbers and play financial games. Think Enron. Some people hit something. Some people treat everyone around like crap. And some people blame.

Yes, they blame. They blame colleagues. “Sales are down! Sally distracted me so I lost the big prospect.” They blame loved ones. “I went over my sick day quota since I had to take Billy to treatment for his Black Lung disease.” They blame the government.”If it weren’t for the (Republicans/Democrats), (the economy/the occupation/global warming/life/love/happiness) would be better.” And they blame themselves. “I’m just a failure.”

All because they counted, then got emotionally wedded to the counting.

What counts and what doesn’t?

I’ve been talking so far about business, only not really. We count the wrong things in business, we count the wrong things in life. We go to pieces when our business counts go off-track, we go to pieces when our real-life counts go off-track. And remember, real life counts more. Where do you get caught in the counting?

Some of us count who’s done more housework, us or our spouse. Some of us count the dollars in our savings account. Some of us count what someone does to prove they love us. Some of us count how pious our neighbors are. It all turns into judgment, and from there, into emotion. When the counting is going the way we want, we think life is good. When the counting goes the other way, we get upset.

The upset is extra, though! It’s our reaction to the counting. The counting doesn’t cause the problem; it’s our stories about the counting that cause the problem.

Let’s fix this. Let counting be counting. Let emotion be emotion. All this score-keeping, counting, and measuring is made up. It’s all fantasy. It’s a convenient tool for making decisions. But it’s not real. And it’s certainly not worth turning yourself into an ogre, feeling horrible, and abusing yourself and your loved ones.

What if you count and discover your bank account isn’t high enough to send your kids to college? Don’t get upset. Use it as information and change your savings plan. But don’t beat yourself up. You can’t do anything for your kids that way, except set a bad example. Use the information to stay centered and work with the people you love to fix the situation.

What if you count and discover your spouse overcharged on the credit card? You can fly into a rage, or you can sit down with your spouse, love each other tremendously, and decide from that place how you’ll deal with the situation. I used the “fly-into-a-rage” method several times. It didn’t pay the bill, nor did it make me an attractive snuggle partner, even to our stuffed animals. The counting-as-information plus love-then-problem-solving works way better.

What if you count pounds, and discover you have more than you want? You can get depressed and eat a chocolate cake to help yourself feel better (Stever’s diet advice: learn to distinguish “sugar rush” from “feel better”). Or realize the number’s just information you can use to change your diet. If you’re going to diet, doing it from a place of fun makes it … well … more fun. And if you’re not going to diet, then at least enjoy the chocolate cake. But don’t let counting trick you into not-dieting, and also not enjoying the cake. That’s plain foolishness!

And what if you count and discover you’re not as rich as Darren, despite your superior skills? Or you’re not as rich as the goal you set at age 23? You can call yourself a failure and jump out of a plane without a parachute. That’s one solution. But maybe you can notice that a number is just a number, while you’re an entire human being who has much more to offer than a number.

Counting is optional. If you stop counting and look around, you just might find you’re warm, dry, full, and reading the web. And that’s not such a bad place to be. So count only when it’s useful, don’t take it too seriously, and feel good either way. Move your attention from counting to living. Put your attention on the things that make you feel happy, joyous, and grateful. If you must count, count those, and every day, count a little higher. It’s your life, and only you can make your counting count.

Is Counting the Root of all Evil?

read time: 6 min