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The Limitations Of What We Measure

filed in Success

A friend recently posted a photo on social media of a star chart pinned up in her son’s classroom for all to see. You will have come across one of these before. Maybe the one you remember had your name clearly written in neat handwriting on the left alongside a blank column to the right, where your stars, once earned, would go.

There was a predictable distribution of stars on the chart in the photo—nothing unusual amongst an average population of 7 year-olds. Most had earned two or three stars. One boy was streaking ahead with six. Then there was Ethan without a single star to his name. There’s always an Ethan.

Everybody, including Ethan, knows he’s at the bottom of the star getting pile. Nobody, including Ethan, knows why. Starless, Ethan now bears the label of ‘the naughty one’ because he can’t seem to get to grips with performing at the star-worthy things that can somehow be easily measured.

And so it goes in business—where all success is defined by what it’s easy to put a number on. Revenue, sales, profits, growth, footfall, impressions, open rates, page views and likes—all the things that fit neatly on a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets, like star charts, don’t lie, they just don’t tell the whole story about the intentions we have, the effort we made, the impact of our work and the difference we will have over time—not just this term or this quarter.

The people with the most gold stars don’t always win. And sometimes they lose. Because they are so busy reaching for stars to stick, they forget to look up at the brightest ones, too numerous and too far off in the galaxy to count.

Inage by Jeffrey.