KPI’s for Life: Adding Beauty

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My son was born almost 11 months ago and is just starting to walk on his own.  Seeing him learn to stand on his own feet and the look of sheer glee on his face as explores his world is  magical.  Watching him and his big sister become more and more themselves is basically the best thing in my world.  I think most parents experience something similar, having kids gives us a chance to see the world through new eyes and experience familiar things for the first time once again.

Like many parents I find myself reconsidering priorities and modes of thought.  In my professional life I spend a lot of time thinking about metrics and key performance indicators (KPI’s) because so much of what I do revolves around tracking and reporting.  It’s far too easy to get so caught up in the work that one loses sight of the KPI’s that really matter – things like being a decent human being, teaching my kids good values, leaving the world a better place than I found it. What I’ve come to realize is that fundamentally they all come back to one thing – adding beauty to the world.

 In tech startup-land it’s common to frame actions in term of whether or not they “add value” to the company or to clients.  It’s a useful shorthand and a good reminder that if a product or service isn’t adding value there’s no reason for people to consider paying for it.  Being cool is nice, adding value is essential.  As a professional, my interactions with customers and coworkers are determined by this simple metric: does what I am about to do add value?  I find having a simple clean metric like this immensely helpful in cutting through the noise of office politics, my own ego, and anything else that can cloud the issue.

At the same time, it’s far too easy to get sucked into thinking about things only in terms of monetary value – we see the horrific impacts of such thinking in every clearcut forest, every destroyed fishery, and in the impending existential crisis of climate change. These things are the result of an ideology that defines value in strictly monetary terms.  For example when one works for a logging company a pristine old growth forest has no value but the lumber you could extract by clear cutting it does; and so we clear cut our forests with abandon and leave the natural world – the ecosystem that makes our existence possible – in ruins.

I’d like to propose a new KPI: Adding beauty.

For any action a person might take, one can ask a simple question to determine whether to go ahead: does this thing add beauty to the world? If yes, do it. If not, it’s worth reconsidering. This metric is ideal because its simplicity allows it to be applied in virtually any situation.

Returning to parenting as an example – should I get frustrated with my three year old because she’s whining and snap at her? Or should I take a second to understand that she’s just overtired and really needs a hug and a nap? Parenting is nothing more or less than the sum total of small decisions like this one, and each time I make the decision how to react I am deciding how I want my daughter to remember her dad long after I am gone. I am human, I will make mistakes, and every incident is a single relatively small datapoint. As any data scientist will tell you though, if you tie enough data points in a set together one can see clear trend lines. These are the moments she will remember, and my choices as a father can either cause lasting pain or add beauty to her life and to the lives of others with whom she will interact.

In a work setting it’s equally applicable – we should all strive to interact with our co-workers in ways that will bring out the best in them and in ourselves. As a manager this is doubly important. Even in terms of a product it’s instructive – shipping elegant clean code is virtually always worth spending a little extra time vs pushing an ugly temporary patch that creates technical debt. Taking the time in the design stage to make sure a UI is intuitive and easy to use so stakeholders can work efficiently and avoid unnecessary frustration falls in the same bucket.

From interpersonal behavior, to career choices, to the foreign policy I want to see in a candidate for president; this metric is both incisive and instructive. There is a lot of ugliness in the world and it can be very tempting to add to it. Resisting that temptation is worthwhile.

At the end of the day, the world we all have to live in and that our kids will inherit is the world that we all co-create by our action and inaction. Let’s try to add as much beauty to it as possible.