Thoughts on Quantity and Quality

In this post, I’m going to try something new. I’d like to challenge a point of view that I see as main stream and I encourage you to take a new perspective on how you approach life. I want this to be thought provoking without being preachy in hope that you will share your comments and challenges below. 

MY OPINION

Most agree that Quality outweighs Quantity in principle. In practice however, it is often easier to let quantity win out in our decisions and actions. Breaking the decision habit and evaluating based on Quality will make you happier and more fulfilled than allowing Quantity to win out. 

THE "QUANTIFICATION" AGE

We live in an amazing time of sharing data almost limitlessly. People are connected with multiple devices to the internet full time generating and consuming massive amounts of information. This information that you generate is quantified, transmitted, stored, analyzed and reproduced in a new form for you to consume again. That's amazing! The deluge* of 1s and 0s includes quantified data ranging from the mundane like your age and location to the highly analyzed like shopping history and social interactions. Numbers are the language of computers to make objective decisions. I've noticed recently it is becoming more and more of a shared language among people too. Think about it, how often are these quantities considered in your life?

  • Social media: Number of followers, retweets, YouTube views, Facebook Friends, Instagram Hearts, Yelp rating and number of reviews. 
  • Health: Your weight, calories consumed or expended, blood pressure, glucose levels, grams of protein in a nutrition bar, time at the gym.
  • Wealth: Your salary, how much is saved for retirement, rent, car payments, grocery prices.

Whole industries have emerged from this quantification revolution such as Big Data, Quantified Self, and the Internet of Things to name a few. As humans, we've evolved to optimize and make life easier. As it pertains to decision making, quantifying is easier in most cases to qualifying. I argue that this outlook does not result in better decisions and will get into how to use these in tandem to make the best result. But first, let's step back.

WHERE QUANTITY ORIGINATED

My opinion on this was formed from what I've learned on the subjects of human prehistory, neuroscience, and human consciousness. I draw from the experts** to stand on the shoulders of giants since I am not one.

Both quantity and quality are forms of comparison though they have a distinction. Quality is experienced differently by each individual and is inherently subjective while quantity describes a characteristic based on measurement technique that's is agreed upon by the individuals using the quantity to communicate the characteristic. The use of quantity to communicate is important, I'll get back to that. 

But first, from an evolutionary perspective, comparison on quality is a survival skill. Our brains are highly advanced pattern recognition and decision-making devices and they use comparison to predict which outcomes will result in us living long enough to pass on our genes. As humans emerged in Africa, we used comparison to find the best quality of life. Examples: Finding shelter is better than exposure, eating red berries makes me sick but blue ones are OK, living in a tribe is better than being alone, cooking with fire helps me eat more varieties of food. Prior to the invention of numbers, quality is the basis of our comparison and quantity only means "more" or "less" of something.

It kind of blew my mind to think of something as ubiquitous as numbers being something that had to be invented. It first hit me reading The Joy of X that numbers were invented. Imagine if you were asked the attendance of a party, you may state everyones name or you might just give the total number of people. It's a description of a characteristic with an agreed way to measure the characteristic (each person present is quantified as 1 in attendance). We can easily abstract their name and simply put a number representation.

Quantities really took off in human history around the time agriculture and civilization started getting cool too. This was because people had surplus resources they could trade with other groups and simplifying to a quantity made communication easier. A property of numbers being abstract also means math can be applied to them which is also really useful for describing relationships between real world objects.

WHERE LIFE BY QUANTITY ALONE GOES WRONG

Now things are really coming along, we've got sentient humans that make decisions based on comparisons using quality and quantity. Quality can be harder to describe than a solid number so quantity used  more to make these comparisons. Of course, quantities don't tell the whole story. It allows for a quick assessment between separate groups of things being compared. Quantity is cold, objective, and emotionless. They focus our thoughts and decisions to only what has been measured.

A few places where one might rely too heavily on quantities alone:

  • "I've been exercising regularly and I feel better but my weight hasn't gone down."
  • "If my salary goes up, I'll be able to buy more."
  • "I have tons of friends, but I feel very lonely."

The thing to be cautious of with quantities is the quality that lives behind them. How valuable is the characteristic being measured on making the decision, how good is the method of measurement, and what are the qualifications of who's doing the measuring? If you heard "9 out of 10 dentists agree on Colgate" then their qualifications have merit because they're experts int he field of dental hygiene. Take them out of their field of expertise and their judgement may be less important to you. There's a saying that 90% of statistics are made up to poke fun at the fact that so often we use numbers to justify opinion when they have poor methods of measurement.

A place that I see quantities misused is diet and exercise. Calories are a mainstream example of oversimplifying complex microbiology and nutrition into a number. If you're currently following a "Calorie-In/Calorie-Out" approach to your diet, I highly encourage you to listen to Shawn Stevenson's podcast interviewing the writer of The Calorie Myth. To put it short, calories are heralded as the energy metric. But there is so much beyond the the way a food is used by the body than this measurement lets on. To put it way too simply, 100 calories of table sugar are vastly different than 100 calories of spinach. What biologists, athletes, and nutritionists are finding is that an optimized diet and exercise regime is may orders of magnitude more complex than the quantities contained within the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged food.

But thats really cool! Think about it, we evolved these amazingly creative brains that thrive on learning and problem solving to help us scrape through survival. Now days, we still have these awesome brains but in an environment where we're (usually) not scraping for survival and we get to turn them toward new interesting things to learn! So, how do we do that?

 

TO REFOCUS ON QUALITY

What helped me come to this conclusion was an abundance of time available for self evaluation coupled with a long reading list and a drive to improve my quality of life. Recently I spent three months aboard a boat in the Caribbean. During this time cut off from from the flood of data, I started practicing mindfulness and meditation. This led to me digging into consideration of the quality of the world I was choosing to surround myself with. This month, I'm kicking off 30 days of meditation for my 30 by 30 challenge, culminating in a 10 day Vipassana retreat. 

A big thing that meditation has taught me has been to notice habit and triggers. Our brains evolved to find efficiencies, even in the way that they work. Consider how much energy it can seem to take to maintain focus on a single task, that's your brain working hard. It uses 20% of your body's energy and only takes up 3% of it's mass, that's higher than any other organ in the body. If it didn't find ways to optimize itself, you'd either need to eat more, rest more, or pull energy use from other organs. So, the brain creates habits and triggers to send you on autopilot. Think of your morning routine, or driving through your commute, you're probably not using 100% of your focus because your brain has simplified and optimized your actions. The same thing happens when we simplify our decisions and world view by only using quantities. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I am saying, the mechanism that optimized it was from a time that when we were fighting to survive. That fight pretty far of for many of us so you have some extra time and energy to take a step back and compare the quality behind the quantity.

The next time your faced with a decision and you have some quantities available, try asking yourself a few questions:

  • Do I agree that of the characteristics that could be measured, these are the best ones for making my decision?
  • Is there merit in the method of measurement?
  • Who is doing the measuring and what qualifications do they have to assure it's accuracy?

Let me know how it goes.