Measuring Success

We live in a world driven by value. By which I mean money.

Yesterday, I found myself explaining money to my 9-year-old son and this is a practice which I advise all adults to engage in – whether they have 9-year-old children or not (I’m sure girls work just as well, by the way, I just don’t happen to have one of those). Young children, in my experience, don’t understand the obsession with money and I think that we can learn a great deal from them.

So my explanation went like this: I para-phrased Dee Hock and described “money” as a concept for the exchange of value, a quite handy way of defining the principle. Money, I said, is a convenient form used to represent value of many different things in such a way as to allow us to exchange value with others in a comprehensible and manageable way. These might not have been my exact words, and there may have been a few “um”‘s and “er”‘s in there too but to be fair I was navigating the busy concourse at Euston Station at the time.

So money is an abstraction away from things which have real value – food which ultimately has value in keeping us alive, but also has value in that it (in many cases) tastes nice; water which again keeps us alive, and is better for us than most other liquids; clothes which keep us warm and allow us to express identity and, basically, feel good; etc. This is where my explanation went, and this is where the thought-provoking bit comes in. All these things have different value, yes, but they also have different value to different people. Of course a bowl of rice to a starving person in a draught-hit region of the world has massively high value whereas to me it holds little value because I’ve got cupboards full of food. This is pretty obvious. Consider, though, that a bar of chocolate holds little value to me at 9am when I’ve just had my breakfast whereas at 4pm, if I happen to be sitting in an office towards the end of a long and busy day, I might consider it very valuable indeed.

This variation in value from person to person, from location to location, and from time period to time period is what our concept of money tries to represent. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often pause to consider what an impossible task that is. So let’s do that.

Here’s the $1M question, if you’ll pardon the ill-placed metaphor: why do we insist on using this very poor abstraction of value as a measure of success?

When you go to an art gallery, assuming you do, you might assess pictures based upon how pleasing they are to your eye. How drawn you are to the subject. How well the artist has captured the scene or emotion he’s trying to depict. You wouldn’t go around saying “yes, that one is quite colourful” and “that one isn’t very colourful”. Imagine if we measured the quality of art based solely on how colourful it was. What a lot of detail we’d miss! I don’t know whether this is an inspirational or ridiculous analogy, though either way I encourage you to treat it with the suspicion with which all analogies should be treated. It does help to make the point though, which is that by assessing success through just one very abstract and fluffy measure we miss one hell of a lot of detail.

So to answer my $1M question, and collect on that $1M before anyone else does, I believe we use money because it’s simple.

Many of us try to see our lives in different terms – by looking at what we’ve achieved, what positive influences we’ve had, and whether or not we’re happy. Measuring happiness and drawing conclusions from the results seems like a great idea, and there are any number of surveys and studies which we can look at to see how things are going, on a world scale, on the happiness front. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has plenty to say on the topic, which is encouraging, but a recent article in The Conversion advises caution – and with good reason. If money is a rather abstract measure of value, then happiness is surely just as abstract a measure of the mish-mash of emotions which make up human existence – one from which dangerous conclusions can be drawn, conclusions which would result in very bad policy indeed. Just as using money as the measure does, in fact.

Nevertheless, on a personal level we do know when we’re happy and when we’re sad and these are pretty important indicators to drive behaviour on an individual level.

Whilst browsing, as one does, the immense beast which is the internet I came across a bit of career advice from George Monbiot. If you’ve not come across George, then you should take a look at his writings. He’s an environmental journalist and author who doesn’t pull his punches but has a vast amount of knowledge and common sense. He’s one of the wise men of this world, and worth listening to. So I figured his career advice would be good, and it is – though it’s not necessarily the practical steps which would-be journalists might be hoping to read. For instance, when discussing the merits of following the establishment (and risking getting sucked into what is effectively summed-up by most of us as “the rate race”), vs following your heart, he draws on advice from Benjamin Franklin: “Whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither.” In relation to the topic in hand, the choice lies between money (security) or freedom. For those seeking a career in journalism, or indeed anything else, his advice to go with your heart rather than join the establishment, if at all possible, may not be what most people are looking for. However, George puts it very well when he says: “…when faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the ‘necrophiliac’ world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be.”

Reality is where true value exists, if we choose to measure it, and the world of wealth and power is where money lurks. Its a shame, then, that we bring up our children in institutions which extol the values of conformance, consciously or not, with the aim of providing new citizens for the established career streams. This is why we home educate: we would like our children to be successful on their own terms, rather than on other people’s. Yes, I know, not every school kid grows up to be a bank manager – and a good portion rebel against it all to greater or lesser degree – but if we could study character as a geneticist can study a gene sequence then I firmly believe we would see unproductive, imprinted behaviour running through all of us.

Anyhow, let’s not get sidetracked. If we want to actually measure success, not just an abstraction, what can we do?

Firstly, we need to go back to some basics which are engrained deeply in all of us and, indeed, in organisations: aims, goals, ambitions. Three words for the same thing: a set of things which we would like to achieve. I don’t mean the marketing-led nonsense which most businesses come up with as “values, mission and vision” statements. Go take a look for mission, vision or strategy statements from businesses you’re familiar with and see what their’s look like. Now put yourself in the role of sole decision-maker in that company and think what your primary goal would be. I suspect it would look something like this: “Make as much money as possible”. That’s every company’s goal, give or take a few with a more moralistic bent. Every other goal flows from that. Usually, morals take a hike in business in favour of profits: morals become defined around laws, and in financial terms (as we continually see with big names such as Google, Amazon, and Cadbury).

As individuals, though, I don’t believe many of us would assess that our primary target is to make as much money as possible. Because our society is now so constructed around the flow of money, and money has become seemingly essential for all our core needs, whatever our individual goals may be they all end up with goal-achievement tasks which concern the acquisition of it. Which is a huge distraction from otherwise very useful tasks which might more directly help us to achieve our goals.

In exactly the same way, I think we would all be rather happier if businesses did not define success in terms of money but instead created believable, non-financial aims against which to judge themselves – aims rooted in a society and political/financial system which actively supported them directly. Dee Hock founded the VISA organisation with the intent of creating the best solution for the global exchange of value (money), and himself firmly believes that an organisation should not be forever – when its mission is complete then it should naturally wither away and its constituent parts move off to other things. What company (including VISA) has ever deliberately done that – except where it has remained in private ownership and the owner(s) has decided to pack it in? Shareholders are not keen on seeing their company dissolve, and nor are most private owners. Yet for a business built around non-financial goals, winding up activities when those goals were met would be entirely natural.

Dee Hock also said this: “The essence of community, its heart and soul, is the non-monetary exchange of value; things we do and share because we care for others, and for the good of the place.”

This is not to say that money does not play a role. There are many ways to exchange value, and computers provide us with the perfect tools with which to do it directly. We no longer need Noel Edmunds and the MultiColoured Swap Shop to help us to exchange things with others, we can, if we wish, do it through other systems such as freecycle. As freecycling is primarily for helping unloved possessions to find a new home, I prefer the idea of a “value exchange” which provides the simple means to match things with people who want them – whatever and wherever they may be – on a non-financial basis.

Must there, as there is now, always be a solid line of distinction between business and community – and if there must, then why? This seems the unhealthiest part of all this, the fact that the ultimate result of abstracting value away from reality and into a concept we call money is to abstract what we collectively do as a species with what we actually want to achieve as a species.

Which is why, in a recent article Drowning in Money, George Monbiot had to report that Owen Paterson, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (though he hasn’t yet noticed the “environment” bit), stated that “I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do.” This is in relation to how farmers in upland areas of Britain will be paid more in subsidies if they grub up more trees, an environmentally and even financially unsound thing to do because those trees are a vital part of the water management system (ground in which trees are grown absorbs 67 times as much water as ground in which grass is grown, according to one study). The farming system has been devised in such as way as to survive off ill-conceived subsidies. A commodity which, in human terms, has huge value – food – is consistently managed by governments in such a way as to undermine that value at point of purchase. This is purely as a result of monetary abstraction.

The transition movement suggests an alternative approach to money, a baby-steps attempt to transition away from assessing and assigning value on a macro level and instead looking at how value can be assessed and assigned on a more local level. Gary Alexander has produced a really interesting and thought-provoking book, eGaia, which discusses new ways in which to connect people – using technology – so that they can achieve shared goals without necessarily needing to resort to the abstraction caused by money.

Whatever steps we take, the only way we can realign our world around shared human goals, rather than abstracted money-based one, is to go back to those first principles, define our individual and our group objectives, and then come up with practical ways to achieve them.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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