Numbers aren’t the only measure

Photo by Tyler Meuter

I was reading an online article about ways to save time. The article suggested to pay someone else to do your cooking or cleaning for you. The crux of the argument was that even if you paid money for someone else’s labor, it could still be a good economic decision because of the opportunity cost you’d pay if you did the work yourself — that is to say, you’d be able to spend more time working at your own job, making money. I was struck by the absence of any other justification for trying to save time for yourself. Spending time with your friends and family, enjoying a book or a piece of music — these are irrelevant, what matters is the financial aspect. To consider otherwise, it seemed to suggest, would simply be immoral.

I believe in a more holistic approach to considering the worth of your time. It’s not my aim to demonize worrying about money completely. There are certainly people who justifiably are worried about money, where the difference could mean being able to pay for school or for the well being of yourself or a loved one. But there’s an error in thinking that occurs quite commonly for a simple reason — money is a number, and it can keep going higher indefinitely.

If you consider having more money to always be better, then you will never reach the maximum amount of good possible: two dollars is better than one, three dollars is better than two, and so on and so forth up to infinity. Furthermore, the hardness and tangibility of that number means it can have a disproportionate weight in our thinking process. If you decide to work fewer hours and cultivate a new hobby with your free time, how do you quantify the amount of enjoyment you get from that hobby? It’s a difficult question to answer.

The same can be said of grades: when you get back a test or an assignment, there’s a clear cut number written in red ink telling you the worth of the work you’ve accomplished. It’s meant to reflect the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained, but there’s no guarantee of that. There’s at least a cap on how much you can exert yourself, with an A being the limit of how high you can bring your grade. Grades, however, have the drawback of feeling even more like a competition with data about test performance frequently being presented for the class.

My argument is simply that we should carefully consider the amount of importance we attach to those numbers. If you get a seventy on an assignment you know you could have gotten a ninety on, should you feel bad? Maybe. But, how much would your understanding have been improved in working towards that ninety? How important is that understanding, in terms of its satisfaction to you and its usefulness? How important is that good grade? What did you gain by doing whatever you were doing instead of studying? The same sanity check can be applied to money, especially since how much money you have isn’t a measure of anything other than how much money you have and the money’s only worth what you spend it on.

In the end, the question is one of value. We’re all ultimately free to decide within our own minds what matters to us. For me, the most important thing is obvious: to be happy and satisfied with yourself and the life you’re living. Keeping track of numbers is useful only as far as it furthers that goal.