I was once instructed by a nonprofit “guru” that “everything can be measured.” Even if I could concede to agree with the premise, I get stuck with the corollary: that we can develop standardized metrics to measure everything. In other words, as usual, it’s not the what, but the how.
The notion that we can measure everything can be empowering. I can compare how less abandoned I feel now to three years ago when I was taken from my family and put in foster care. How less heartbroken I feel six months after a breakup than one week into the chasm. That reflection, that we can do introspectively ourselves, or with the help of a catalyst like a therapist, can help us use a sense of progress as fuel to keep moving.
But it begins to get messy and disempowering when we’re measured on a scale comparing us to whoever our peers are determined (by someone else) to be. What if my heart takes a lot longer to heal than the “norm” for successful closure? What does this mean? Lots of assumptions begin to follow – not the least of which is failure. And just as a feeling of progress can beget more progress, a sense of failure begets hopelessness, and the rabbit hole deepens.
Whether or not kids are fully cognizant of everything they’re being measured on or by, they know they’re being measured. Again, that can be a great thing: someone’s paying attention and wants to see me improve, grow, succeed. But if my improvement regarding very elusive, slippery and constantly morphing things like confidence, hope for the future, or capacity for empathy are gauged via the same likert scale that’s measuring my classmate, or other “court-involved youth,” or NYC “at risk” children, or just adolescents generally, it might mean that I remain in a perpetual state of substandard categorization, my leaps and bounds unrecognized. Invisible. Not counted.
Those of us who grew up with relative stability, support and resources were not measured every step of the way in every aspect of our behavior. If we had been, I suspect fewer of us would be running enterprises, driving technological advances, and developing solutions to complex societal problems, and more of us would be substance abusers, self-confined to dark corners. We all need some space in order to flourish. Space to fall, fail, sometimes even to dwell in the mud that ultimately serves as fodder for the next new idea or surge of strength. We need support unconstrained by an incessant need for constant valuation of progress.
Think about how great it feels to be paid attention to.
And then think about how that levity and confidence can sometimes wither to anxiety and a feeling of reduction when you are “evaluated.” This is not an either or argument. Just encouragement to muse on what progress means in our own lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives of those we don’t know, but often feel very equipped to judge.