Several weeks ago, a trainer at my neighborhood gym introduced me to some of the exercise equipment there. The weight machines were unfamiliar to me, but the basic idea of a chest press is the same everywhere, so I had little trouble seeing how to use it properly. In fact, the trainer praised me for my smooth form and deliberate pace. He explained that he sees a lot of people who focus just on the numbers – the amount of weight they can lift and the number of times they can lift it. They might get on the machine, add a bunch of weight, and fly through 15 reps in 10 seconds, pumping spasmodically with their entire bodies rather than targeting the intended muscle groups. They end up with numbers they think they can feel good about, but they don’t end up with half the benefit they would get if they took their time, maybe even took the weight level down a notch or two, and really focused on working the muscles in which they want to see some growth.
I thought about that recently when the tide of first-year law students starting to prepare for their fall final exams began to flow into my office. Many of them were looking for practice tests in various subjects. I showed them all where to find more practice tests than any one person could go through in the few weeks they had left before exams. I suggested that they try taking two or three over the next several days, and then come back to my office to talk with me about their results and the processes they had used, so we could find specific ways in which they could improve. Many did just that. But several students initially demurred, explaining that they just wanted to crank out as many practice responses as they could. The more practice tests they could take, the better! In fact, they were worried that the resources I had pointed them to were not going to be enough. I pointed out to these students that, because law school exams – with their emphasis on the clear application of specific rules – are so very different from the kinds of tests they were familiar with from college, they would almost certainly get more benefit from taking a few exams and receiving specific feedback than from plowing through a couple of dozen tests and repeating the same mistakes over and over.
One thing that separates the inexperienced and the shallow from attentive veterans is their overreliance on quantity. People who are concerned about performing well – or at least being perceived as performing well – reflexively look for some measure by which they can judge their performance. Numbers provide such an easy measure! At the gym, at school, or at work, what could be more straightforwardly comforting than being able to point to a numerical marker? “I did 3 sets of 15 reps of 100 pounds . . . I took 20 practice exams . . . I put 50 hours into that project!” And it’s not crazy to think that way, in a world in which other people also use quantity to judge us as well. How much do you weigh? What score did you achieve? How many hours did you bill? Ignoring the numbers would be a foolish mistake.
But quantity is a one-dimensional measurement. When it’s the only dimension that matters, then, sure, a single-minded focus on quantity may yield the best results. But that happens less often than many people think. Even when your employer tells you that, for them, quantity is the number-one goal – when you know you need to hit a specific dollar target, or bill 2000 hours in one year, or achieve a 98% satisfaction rate – you personally are frequently best served, in the long run, by also paying attention to the processes by which you meet those short-term goals, and by continually improving those processes. Hitting an employer’s target means you are providing them with the value they want; improving the way in which you hit that target means you are cultivating value within yourself.