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Pursue Metrics that Matter


Three Measures of Success

I’ve been thinking recently about the metrics we use to measure success when pursuing self-motivated ambitions. These metrics tend to fall into three major categories, which I’ll list from easiest to hardest to achieve:

  • Participation Metrics: The goal here is to simply invest regular time toward the ambition. For example, if you want to become a writer, this might involve creating a daily writing ritual.
  • Unconventional Custom Metrics: The goal here is now clarified to specify concrete outcomes, but these outcomes tend to be custom-built and not widely recognized as marks of success in the field. Returning to our writer example, a custom path to success might steer toward self-publishing, with much of your focus now directed on mastering the technical mechanics of Scribner, KDP, freelance cover designs, and well-paced e-mail marketing campaigns.
  • Conventional Competitive Metrics: The goal here is to achieve outcomes that are widely recognized as impressive. In our writer example, this might be a big book deal with a major publisher.

The Power of Competition

When it comes to the three categories from above, I think the first category is reasonable for dabbling with a topic, but it won’t take you much farther than that, so you shouldn’t be satisfied with this measure of success for too long.

The second category is more worrisome.

These unconventional metrics are insidious because they provide enough illusion of accomplishment to keep hijacking your limited energy, but ultimately they rarely provide much return.

The reason they deliver so little is that they’re usually designed to avoid competition checkpoints — steps in the process where many aspirants enter, but only a much smaller number win the ability to continue. This might sound nice, but such checkpoints are crucial for advancement in many ambitions. It’s these competitive clashes that force you to hear someone say, “this is not good,” and therefore find the motivation to return to the woodshed for more of the inevitable hard practice, driven to produce a different outcome.

This final point is why I like the third type of metric. Pursuing highly competitive and unambiguous definitions of success for a given ambition, if you persist, will force you to improve your skills at a rapid and sustained rate. This process can be ego-crushing at times (as I know from many personal experience in writing and academia), and in the moment it’s much less satisfying than implementing some hyper-specific life hacks, but it’s this scramble to win a limited resource that forges professional talent.

So this is my simple observation: When deciding to embrace a self-motivated ambition, choose a definition of success that your aunt in Peoria would understand and find impressive. This is not about succumbing to the status quo, but instead setting yourself up to receive the brutal but useful feedback needed to eventually start producing things too good to be ignored.

(Photo by shutterbugamar)

22 thoughts on “Pursue Metrics that Matter”

  1. A lot of the competitive metrics I have come across are infrequent, and their thresholds for success are mysterious; the best example of this is that 100% of my grades come from a mid-semester and final exam. That’s only four opportunities for feedback per year.

    How do you use competitive metrics like that without working in a feedback-free echo chamber 90% of the time?

  2. Hi Cal,

    I agree that the last one is the end-goal of a “recognized high quality self-development”, one definition of success that I particularly like (it puts all in perspective). But I don’t get the first: daily rituals are more a tool than a measure per se; it gives infos on your tenacity, endurance and capacity to exercise, all very good points, but it does not guarantee at all an end-result.

    The second one is indeed a noisy area and thus very prone to miscontentment and focus loss. But it can nevertheless be useful to keep motivation and motivated audience, as for instance well-paced e-mail/blog marketing campaigns for previous works or books for instance… 😉

    I like your blog and way to “be” in academia. Not in the same way than I do but inspiring.



  3. Currently, I’m trying to do both (1) and (3). I’m tracking the input as well as the results.

    Without keeping data on the input, I find it hard to identify activities that yield little or no results, and vice versa.

    However, (3) is really long-term. One has to make up milestones on the way in-between to keep oneself on track. Otherwise, it’s possible to lose oneself in the endeavor.

  4. Cal,

    Seriously, the stuff you write is golden. Your “So good…” book is in my bundle of books for 20 somethings, and it has shaped a lot of how I think and conduct my life. I am finishing medical school ths year, and I have really focused on a few key areas as a student where I could participate, as well as achieve conventional measurables (key positions, awards, publications). I have a question though.

    I am gearing up for interview season for a psychiatry residency training position. It was a recent decision to go into the field, though my ancillary interests ana student-level achievements will transition well as a psychiatrist. Medicine is one of those annoying fields where at the end of basically 1 year of surveying specialties, you interview and sign a 3-7 year contract to train in something you have no real passion for, only a vague interest and hopefully the character that will thrive in that field and find your passion.

    How do you suggest I approach that question, “why do you want to be a psychiatrist?” I feel like most people’s answers are, “I’m really passionate because…” and my answer is still, “I’m looking forward to finding my passion in the field, and I’m interested because…meanwhile, look at the few things I have bugun to develop passion about (education, health policy, etc) and see how I’ve thrived. I want to do that in psychiatry…just not sure where yet.”

    It comes across lukewarm. Not great personal statement fodder.

    Thanks again for your work. It has given words and made clear an engaging and enjoyable path to somewhere as of yet undiscovered.

    • Mark,
      Perhaps you might consider how “themes” (Holland codes) define your purpose in life as it supports your avocation. Subjective driving dynamics require self-exploration to elevate and objectify their tangential place in your future practice. If your social aspirations are to heal others, then channeling your inherent abilities into that domain allow these to amplify the relevance of your journey because your “career capital” is being perfected to subordinate these social ambitions (healing).
      This is what drives you to work late into the night, rise early in the morning, and find the energy to sustain this pace. If it isn’t being actualized then a critical piece to this is missing requiring further inquiry to isolate it and address why it isn’t a good fit. Ultimately, your calling is a reflection of who you are doing what what you hope achieve; improving the lives of others.
      Consider this: rather than focus on your resume attributes, lofty accolades, and or self-important degree credentials ponder how others will read your obituary. How will you be remembered for what you have done for others? What legacy will you leave behind that created an impact in this world? Then reverse engineer this back to the present where you may deploy your self in a purpose driven mindset to fulfill a life worth living.
      Hope this is of some assistance.

    • Mark,

      Have you considered telling a story? In elementary school, I learned that a story is beginning, middle, and end. It wasn’t until MUCH later in my life that I read Peter Grubers book, “Tell To Win”. That’s where I learned that a story is: 1) a question (or challenge); 2) the emotional struggle, and 3) a galvanizing conclusion that leads to action (preferably with a twist).

      As I began practicing this simple 1, 2, 3 recipe, I began seeing how this applies to almost every form of communication, from blogging, to proposals, to interviews. Just from your response, I could pull out this story:

      “I knew you would ask that, and I didn’t have an answer. A few years ago, I realized I had spent my career acquiring knowledge. And, I wasn’t sure to what end. It was then that I set about deliberately practicing skills that I felt would enable me to make a difference, while I continued to explore the various aspects of healthcare. Until eventually, I realized that I would never know enough about the various specialties to make a completely informed decision. That’s when I began looking for ways that I could make the most impact – applying my raw skills (blah, blah, blah) to (blah blah). Which is how I ended up choosing Psychiatry.”

      The above seems crude, because it’s not my story to tell – it’s yours.

      Curtiss Murphy

      PS – When you Interview, you may also consider using “Yes … AND” – it’s a technique I teach to all knowledge workers, including med students.

  5. Cal,

    I wonder about the word ‘Competitive’. Lots of aspiring game developers ask me how they can get in the industry. What they need to know is that it takes year of deliberate practice. And, yet, sometimes, they take that to mean spending years, toiling away in obscurity, making trivial progress toward an impossible goal. What happens is that they didn’t know enough (Dunning-Kruger) to know which path to take. For them, competition and deliberate practice end up steering them away from excellence, toward burn out.

    After a while, I began offering this advice: “Deliberate practice is practicing things ALMOST beyond your ability”. I then challenge them to finish something, in 2 weeks, 6 weeks, or 12 weeks – pick something small, doable by them. That’s how they Try; Improve; Repeat – until they are too good to ignore.

    On their path toward excellence, there are some ‘competitive measures’ that could apply, for instance, being “New and Noteworthy”. And while there is value in striving for those, those are often, an all-or-nothing approach that does more harm than good. Yes, the competition is motivational, and it is also harmful to their learning (aka working memory and learning theory).

    I think your “The Aunty Metric” is a better metric – accomplish something that even your aunt in Peoria would find impressive. This could include, publishing a chapter in a textbook, presenting your research at a conference, or for aspiring game developers, release a game on an app-store! The aunt in Peoria doesn’t need the extra emphasis of competition from “publish an Award winning paper; win Best-talk at a conference; or release a New-And-Noteworthy game”. She’s still impressed.

    Curtiss Murphy

  6. Unconventional custom metrics are useful IF they ladder up to conventional competitive metrics.

    For instance…

    As a marketer, I track bottom-line competitive metrics like sales volume and conversion rates, but also the hour-by-hour value of the daily work I put in.

    Perry Marshall divides marketing work into $10-per-hour tasks, $100-per-hour tasks, and $1,000-per-hour tasks.

    In recognition of these distinctions, I created a spreadsheet. On weekdays, every hour from 9-5 has its own cell. In each cell, I color-code the value of whatever I worked on during that hour.

    If it’s low-value (routine administrative chores, errands, etc.) I color in red to signify that I worked on $10-per-hour tasks.

    If it’s medium-value (like brainstorming a new conversion test) I color in blue to signify that I worked on $100-per-hour tasks.

    If it’s high-value (like writing sales copy) I color in green to signify that I worked on $1,000-per-hour tasks. My goal is for 65% of the week’s boxes to be green.

    Of course, not every task turns out to be worth those exact amounts. Nor does any specific number of green boxes guarantee bottom-line success.

    What this tracking provides is daily assurance that I’m working on things with a high probability of payoff. In turn, this self-generated feedback can sustain motivation to keep pursuing the conventional metrics.

    As one commenter pointed out, it’s dangerous to fall into a feedback-free echo chamber. Intelligently unconventional metrics can bridge the gap between one’s daily effort and far-off goals.

  7. Hi, could you help at how can I start to measure my results? Let’s say, academic outcomes per example? Can you help me out with this? I’d apprecciate that, because the usual way (counting the hours I’m actually spending work or doing activities) it’s not being , at least for me, a good input to compare and measure how to maximize my results. Do you have any text or posts about how to improve practice and measure them? Thanks in advance.

  8. I sounds to me as if I could summarize your tips to the following:

    Set yourself metric(s) which meet both these criteria:
    1. If you score this metric above a certain bar, you will genuinely be happy and consider it a success.
    2. Even more importantly: You are really able to fail meeting the bar . There’s a clear-cut ability for an objective viewer to decide if you met the bar or not.

    My questions:
    1. Am I right? If not, why?
    2. If I am right, why must it be a “conventional” competitive metric?

    Much appreciation,

  9. in most of the things in life that matter most – spirituality and family and even work I do think #1 is the most important. But cal has convinced me that I need some more #3 in my career.

  10. The impressive is impressive. I am curious how one decides the metrics for a given profession and wha tis the thought process for each.

    For example Cal is a professor, what are I,II,III for his profession and why each one is in said category.

    I ask because I have problems with developing metrics. Just not good at it…and my ego generally wins when I try, so I set the bar too low(knocked it out I am great) or too high(this is impossible, so don’t try) so if they aren’t established for me, I run into problems.

  11. “The reason they deliver so little is that they’re usually designed to avoid competition checkpoints — steps in the process where many aspirants enter, but only a much smaller number win the ability to continue.”

    It’s hard to face that cold stone of honest rejection. It often whittles down the field just by the virtue of sturdiness of will. There’s no doubt in that.

    However I’m not necessarily convinced that self defined, unconventional metrics are inherently flawed and limits individual’s ability to continue improving their craft. (OF course the goal would need to crystal in it’s definition, ex.(sell 10,000 books or achieve a 4.5 star rating on Goodreads)).

    Continuing the example of self-publishing verse traditional publishing, the arbiters of acceptance and rejection, excellence and the ‘meh’, are readers as opposed to a handful of editors, agents and sales force. Wouldn’t readers’ feedback be as valid, more brutal and raw form of competition? A terrible writer will discover quickly that their writing is terrible.

    From there it would be up to the writer to go back to the workbench and improve. This wouldn’t be different than a writer continually rejected during the query stages of traditional publishing.

    However, I do recognize your point that the danger could also be the distraction of the things not directly related to the goal: being a better writer. (Making websites for promotion etc.) But I think this would happen in the example of writing in either case. Like this blog, I imagine, started as a promotion tool to drive sales.

    Then again, maybe I missed something and I’m just rambling because this example is the very discussion I’m grappling with in my own career brain.

  12. It seems that main advice of this post sounds like “earn more money”, because money are universal metric that every “aunt inPeopria” understands.


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