Numbers can seem inescapable. We don’t have to talk bills, debt, or taxes to understand that much of our lives are metrics-fixated: think performance reviews, social media followers, baseball stats, political polls, the number of unread emails or text messages you have (or don’t have) waiting to be opened. Then there are more personal metrics like age, weight, height, not to mention the number of hours you’re sleeping, the number of calories you’re burning, and where precisely you might score on a mental health assessment on any given day. How many nights since your last anxiety attack? And how many more till it happens again? In many ways, the numbers can help. They bound the unknown, put the blob of incomprehension into some recognizable form. Other benefits include keeping us honest, with ourselves and others. Numbers offer an objective standard to strive for and are a comfort when we’re doing well. Pounds lost, days sober, hours spent exercising. Counting these things keeps us…accountable.

But that’s a funny word. Merriam Webster defines ‘accountable’ as “expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.” You hear this vocab a lot from entrepreneurs, managers, athletes, even Christians; who doesn’t need to justify his or her actions? In his book, The Tyranny of Metrics, history professor Jerry Z. Muller unpacks the broader meaning:

One the one hand, to be accountable means to be responsible. But it can also mean “capable of being counted.” Advocates of “accountability” typically assume that only by counting can institutions be truly responsible. Performance is therefore equated with what can be reduced to standardized measurements.

In Christianity this masquerades as: are you praying every morning? Are you reading the Bible and not texting that ex-girlfriend? But the more important question is, can the value of prayer, or whatever spiritual exercise you’re embarking on, really be counted? Another example: An old form of missionary work was to go to some less-evangelized land, project a screening of a 1980s Gospel reenactment, and afterward ask all attendees to raise a hand if they wished to be converted. Many hands would be raised, and many converts would be made. For the missionaries, this was something to write home about. The number of hands proved that the mission wasn’t in vain. But how much change was actually made? That was (and always will be) an open question. Moreover, for the sake of the numbers, was a genuine connection foregone? Back to Muller:

[M]easurement may become counterproductive when it tries to measure the unmeasurable and quantify the unquantifiable.

Spiritual transformation isn’t the only one of its kind. Unmeasurables are everywhere. Education comes to mind, which has become riddled with metric-based paradigms of success and failure, percentages and comparisons. Muller writes at length about college rankings and, more importantly, the underlying purpose of a degree in higher education beyond the obvious financial advancement:

The College Scoreboard treats college education purely in economic terms: its sole concern is return on investment, understood as the relationship between the monetary costs of college and the increase in earnings that a degree will ultimately provide. Those are, of course, legitimate considerations: college costs eat up an increasing percentage of familial income or entail the student taking on debt; and making a living is among the most important tasks in life.

But it is not the only task in life, and it is an impoverished conception of college education that regards it purely in terms of its ability to enhance earnings… If we distinguish training, which is oriented to production and survival, from education, which is oriented to making survival meaningful, then the College Scoreboard is only about the former. And indeed, the Scorecard and Brookings systems tend to rank most highly institutions that are focused on engineering and technology—the stuff of production. The sort of life-long satisfaction that comes from an art history course that allows you to thereafter understand a work of art in its historical context; or a music course that trains you to listen for the theme and variations of a symphony or the jazz interpretation of a standard tune; or a literature course that heightens your appreciation of poetry; or an economics course that leaves you with an understanding of key economic institutions; or a biology course that opens your eyes to the wonders of the structures of the human body—none of these is captured by the metrics of return-on-investment. Nor is the fact that college is often a place where lifelong friendships are made, often including that most important of friendships, marriage. All of these should be factored in when considering “return on investment”: but because they are not measurable in quantifiable terms, they are not included.

As Muller says, “making a living is among the most important tasks in life”; i.e., numbers are real, and they aren’t going anywhere, and to disregard them completely is less foolish than impossible, college debt aside. Even so, Muller’s broader point has been made by any low-fi Disney Channel Original Movie in which a high-performing student athlete forfeits a college scholarship in order to, as her parent-coach would disgustedly say, spend time with FRIENDS. Uncomfortably, friendship can’t be measured, neither can joy, yet metric fixation can rob us of both.

Muller continues that much of this stems from our lack of trust in our own judgment, or the judgment others. When it comes to managing an organization, or making a big life-decision, it’s important to know first what the metrics would say —

In a series of books, Philip K. Howard has argued that the decline of trust leads to a new mindset in which “[a]voiding human choice in public decisions is not just a theory…but a kind of theology… Human choice is considered too dangerous.” As a consequence, “Officials no longer are allowed to act on their best judgment” or to exercise discretion, which is judgment about what a particular situation requires. The result is overregulation: an ever tighter web of rules, including the proliferation of rules within organizations. Often enough, metrics provides the tools for tightening that web.

There is good reason to distrust human judgment. We’re all a little insane. But anyone who has ever watched Footloose, or lived on planet Earth, knows that doubling down on rules alone won’t stop kids from cutting loose.

It’s worth considering the environment that metric fixation was born into, or out of. On this Muller takes note of “information overload.” Inundated with media, options, headlines, etc., we’ve become overwhelmed, and thus more likely to need an algorithm to make cosmos from chaos. Note, the spiritual lingo is no coincidence; see below.

…another factor is the spread of information technology (IT). In the early 1980s the invention and rapid adoption of the electronic spreadsheet and the resulting ease of tabulating and manipulating figures had wide-ranging effects. As a prescient analyst of the phenomenon, Steven Levy, wrote in 1984,

The spreadsheet is a tool, but it is also a worldview—reality by the numbers… Because spreadsheets can do so many important things, those who use them tend to lose sight of the crucial fact that the imaginary businesses that they can create on their computers are just that—imaginary. You can’t really duplicate a business inside a computer, just aspects of a business. And since numbers are the strength of spreadsheets, the aspects that get emphasized are the ones easily embodied in numbers. Intangible factors aren’t so easily quantified.

Seth Klarman, among the most successful value investors of his generation, concurred, warning in 1991 that spreadsheets created the illusion of depth of analysis.

Since then, the growing opportunities to collect data, and the declining cost of doing so, contribute to the meme that data is the answer, for which organizations have to come up with the questions. There is an often unexamined faith that amassing data and sharing it widely within the organization will result in improvements of some sort—even if much information has to be denuded of nuance and context to turn it into easily transferred “data.”

A “kind of theology,” “an unexamined faith.” Metric fixation does not exist independent of these unquantifiables. Faith lives within the numbers, and so does, I believe, grace. Grace isn’t the opposite of metrics, it’s just different-than, more-than. Numbers may even at times bring little freedoms, bursts of happiness — possibly with the punch of miscalculation or in the guise of a vindication. To connect human beings through screens, across the world, the Holy Spirit has been known to use zeros and ones, as Ian so eloquently wrote about earlier this week. My point is that even as metric fixation brings death through numbers, the reviving power of grace is everywhere — immeasurably so.