Metrics: It’s Never “THE” Number; It’s Always “A” Number

Photo Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley on Flickr

Photo Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley on Flickr

Recently, I had started seeing friends circulate articles that a study at Princeton had debunked the “10,000 Hour Rule.” That was an idea most widely flogged in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” – the idea that 10,000 hours was the magic number to become an expert in anything. Like anything popular – pop music, pop science, pop economics – I secretly cheered when some actual researchers took the time to debunk the theory.

But here’s the thing; it’s not so much that the theory is wrong. It’s that people get hung up on a number. Nobody is- or should be – denigrating the idea of practicing an art or craft to master it. But there are other factors than practice (like talent and proclivity), and the number of hours should be different for everybody (in some cases, sorry to say, the number is infinity. I will never be a concert pianist).

So, my point is not to gleefully bury some pseudo pop-economics that was gleefully spread uncritically by so many others. It is to talk about the meaning of numbers.

One of my favorite parts of social media programs has always been the metrics reports (no, seriously). One thing I learned along the way is that – and I know have typed this phrase here before – “numbers lie, trends don’t.” Another way of putting it is that numbers are meaningless, the same way words can be meaningless, without context.

Any number – subscribers, followers, likes, follows, shares, comments, clicks, downloads, sales – is good to know, but there is no meaning without context and benchmarking.

Context means numbers mean different things to different people and different companies. 10,000 followers? Great. How many did you have last month? How many do you want next month? How many are useful? What do they do?

See what’s happening here? The numbers want to tell a story. As with words, you need to get more numbers to put against them. Then, the story develops.

Numbers are not math. OK, I’m lying if I tell you there’s no math. There’s lots of math. But you are trying to tell a story. And in that story that are heroes, villains, picaresque journeys, monsters, and..the real outliers, “spikes and troughs,” which are often the plot points on which a story turns, and are just as often “Maguffins“that have no real bearing on the outcome of the overall plot (think of a random event that sends junk traffic to your Web site but has no lasting effect).

10,000? Sure, practice that long. Or find the numbers- and words- and talents- that tell your story.

Good riddance, 10,000 Hour Rule ;).