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Measure What Matters

Why some numbers and measurements can steer us wrong—and how to better assess performance and improve.

Measure What Matters



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Now onto today’s post:

The NFL Combine concluded this week. And it can give us insights into how to think about work, health, fitness, and more.

For the unfamiliar: Each off-season, NFL teams put prospective players through a series of drills, exercises, and physical and mental tests.

These tests, the teams and coaches assume, predict a player’s future success in the league and help determine who to draft.

A recruit’s performance at the combine can make or break his draft position and lead to a bigger contract.

Recruits do the following:

  • 40-yard dash
  • 10-yard split
  • Vertical jump
  • Broad jump
  • 20-yard shuttle run
  • 3-Cone Drill
  • Bench press max reps with 225 pounds

But a 2008 study discovered “no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance.”

Another study from researchers at UC Berkeley in 2016 concluded: “(An) outstanding performance at the NFL Combine is not sufficient to guarantee one’s success as a professional player.”

And a simple look at who’s scored best in past Combines reveals a lot of players who fizzled out of the league fast.

The researchers in the 2008 study noted that just one test that correlated with future performance. And it only applied to one position: running backs.

With 7 NFL Combine tests and 24 different football positions, the numbers suggest combine tests predict future football performance just 0.56 percent of the time.

Today we’re exploring how to measure what matters. The point of drafting players is to win more games.

But a player’s impact on wins is complicated and multi-factorial. It deals with their game IQ and work ethic, how they relate to their teammates and deal with setbacks, and more.

Yet by over-focusing on specific fitness measurements—especially when everyone at the combine is “fit enough” to have played very well in college—teams may miss recruits that could lead help them win more games.

The lessons from the Combine don’t just apply to NFL scouting.

We’ve all got our own personal NFL combines in life. Probably many of them.

These are times when we focus on specific numbers and measurements that lead us to miss what really matters.

We’ll cover the following:

  • Why numbers and measurements capture us.
  • Where numbers and measurements steer us wrong.
  • A few case studies of how to use and think of measurements and metrics better.

Why numbers captivate us

In short

“Indirect measurements” are used to simplify complex questions. Yet they can lead us to miss the big picture.

The details

Numbers aren’t natural to humans.

The University of Miami researcher Caleb Everett told me humans didn’t develop written numbers until the last few thousand years. We invented them for progress.

“Anytime you see trade and the measuring of things for precise building or manipulating the physical environment, you’re seeing evidence of numerical systems,” Everett told me.

(P.S. I can write more about this if you’d like. Just comment below. I find it fascinating.)

The rise of numbers and measurements has improved our lives overall.

Numbers and measurements are obviously critical in many situations. Especially when the measurement directly applies to the outcome we want to change or reach.

For example, measuring boards to build a house. If you want a 10-foot ceiling, you better make sure those boards are 10-feet tall.

But some measurements can overstep their bounds. Many measurements oversimplify complex questions and only partially apply to the outcome we want to change or reach. Let’s call this type of measurement “indirect measurements.”

Consider the NFL Combine and its fitness tests. The point of drafting a player is to win more games.

But at the Combine, teams make a big logical leap and assume that a person who can, say, bench press 225-pounds 40 times will be better at helping them win more games compared to a player who bench presses that weight 33 times. (Teams obviously don’t only factor in fitness tests—but the tests weigh heavily for many draft selections).

This clearly isn’t always the case—an NFL game isn’t a bench press competition.

These indirect measurements are embedded throughout our culture.

For example:

  • We measure career success in salary.
  • We measure health in medical test figures.
  • We measure value by price tag.
  • We measure student intelligence by GPA.

Why do we focus on “indirect measurements?”

In short

Indirect measurements give us the illusion of certainty and control. Humans love certainty and control.

The details

According to the philosopher Thi Nguyen, who I spoke to while reporting my book Scarcity Brain, “indirect measurements” (my language, not his) make complicated questions and scenarios simpler.

If we’re measuring success by one number, we can do things to change that number and feel like we’ve improved. This makes us feel like we can control complex situations and determine if we’re doing well or bad.

Everett said this: “We now think that if you can quantify something, boy, you’ve said or accomplished something true and profound, because you have evidence … But it just doesn’t work like that.”

When we assign numbers to ordinary life and complex questions, Nguyen said, “we’re trying to impose clear values (in the form of a single digit) on a pre-existing thicket of values, on a system that is very uncertain and complex.”

Nguyen continued. “So instead of figuring out why you care about something, how you care about it, and articulating for yourself what it is about that system that’s important to you about it,” he said, “(numbers and measurements) just tell you ‘here’s how and why you care about it.’”

This comes with downsides. For example, changing why we do what we do. There are a million examples of this, but here’s one on how GPA alters what students care about in problematic ways.

“Indirect measurements” obviously aren’t useless. But we need to put them in greater context and not consider them gospel.

So how do you do that?

Here’s how I think about this in a few different realms. Keep in mind, my thoughts are always evolving (which is why I started 2%—so we can share our evolving thoughts and evolve!):


Question: How do you define “health?” Seriously. Think about it.

Here’s how scientists define it: By bickering.

Scientists have been arguing over the word’s definition for ages. We still don’t really have one.

Yet let’s take how it gets defined when we go to our doctor’s office. Our health is often measured and defined in cholesterol, BMI, A1C, etc. And we’re told that if we can change a number we’ll then be “healthy.”

These measurements are valuable. They give us useful information that assesses risk levels.

But it’s also helpful to consider what “health” really means to you. Introspect and develop an individual definition (it probably won’t be some test number).

Once you have a working definition, look at your lifestyle. If how you’re living takes you outside of your definition, determine how to get back in the right lane.

And keep in mind that your definition will probably change over the course of your life.

For example, in his work Being Mortal, the MacArthur genius and surgeon Atul Gawande writes of a cancer patient who had to make decisions about how much end-of-life care he’d want as his disease progressed.

His doctor asked, “How much (are you) willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable for you?”

The man’s answer: “Well, if I'm able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I'm willing to stay alive.”


It’s easy to measure career success in salary. Many people lean on that entirely.

That’s the right way to go—if your only definition of success is solely the number in your bank account.

But hundreds of possible questions factor into how you might define career success.

  • Whether you enjoy going to work every day.
  • Whether you have autonomy and don’t feel constrained.
  • What your relationships with your coworkers is like.
  • Whether you feel like the work is making a difference.
  • Whether your career improves your happiness.
  • How much stress your career puts on other factors in your life, like time with family.
  • Whether you feel like you’re learning new things.

You get the point.

It’s useful to do the hard work of determining what your ultimate goals of working are.

What aspects of your job improve your quality of life the most? Why do you work in the first place? How does your salary factor into that “why”? Can you amplify the parts of your job that improve your ability to reach that “why” and your overall quality of life?


In the fitness world, we often build and test capabilities we think will translate to the “larger goal.”

For example, increasing the weight of your squat in the gym because we think it’ll prepare us for our larger goal of hiking better.

But “larger goals,” especially for sports and outdoor activities, are dynamic—they occur in unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable environments. See: An NFL football game.

And better gym numbers don’t always help the larger goal. They can even detract from it.

Once we reach a requisite level of gym fitness, performing well during the “larger goal” often comes down to skills and what we have on board psychologically—managing and reacting to all those unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable circumstances.

Determine the multi-faceted factors that help you reach the “larger goal” and spend as much, if not more, time on those.

And much more …

Think about these topics for yourself. They apply to how we think of possessions, interpersonal relations (status), intelligence, and so much more.

Identify “indirect measurements” and consider how they might alter your behavior. Then ask what they’re simplifying and what you might be missing.

Be willing to wade into the uncomfortable waters of figuring out why you’re doing something in the first place, what you ultimately want to get from that “something,” and the many ways you can get there.

Have fun, don’t die, ask why.


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