Apples != Oranges

by Krishna on February 7, 2009

measurement Some characteristics of people and products are difficult to measure directly and so we rely on proxies. For example, if we cannot measure the quality of a product before we buy it, we sometimes depend on brand name or the advertisements. We use interviews to evaluate programmers before we hire them, although when they work with us, they do work on their systems with access to the entire Internet and never have to be interviewed.

Proxies can be useful and sometimes they are unavoidable. But what is important is to realize in the first place that you are using a proxy to measure an attribute. That is, you are measuring some other characteristic that is related to, but is not the attribute in question. For example, the academic record of a person has a somewhat positive correlation with the intelligence of a person, but it does not provide either the absolute intelligence of the person or the intelligence needed for doing the job. Hence, you will also need to look at other measures in addition to simply looking at academic transcripts.

A few decades ago, conformance to authority, discipline, neatness, etc. stood as proxies for capability on the job. The old IBM dress code was famous for this. Today, we understand that meaningless and blind adherence to rituals has little relationship to one’s ability to do the work. But in some cases, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Bravado is confused with freedom. Carelessness is mistaken for some form of artistic talent. And this perpetuates mediocrity and waste.

So, when it comes to proxies, we have to understand what is what:

  • Being different does not mean that you are automatically entitled to success, or you are doomed to failure. Being different simply means being different. The only thing that matters is in what meaningful ways you are different.
  • Following or breaking the rules has nothing to do with success or failure. The only thing that matters is what bad rules you are breaking and what good you are following.
  • Being stuck-up or quirky simply means you are either stuck-up or quirky. It may not matter an iota if your work does not deal with people. It may matter a lot if people are around, but how it matters depends on what kind of people are around.
  • This is difficult for some people to grasp, but working hard is not a one-way ticket to success. If you don’t work on the right things, or you work on them at the wrong time, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend.

Too many thought leaders and advertisements prey on our wishful thinking about quick achievements. If we could only change something about ourselves (appearance, behavior) and be guaranteed success, there is nothing better we would like. Unfortunately, success cannot be simply achieved by superficial imitation. Jason on Signal and Noise (the 37 Signals blog) has this to say about copying the external attributes of a product:

Shouldn’t copying something be easier than creating it? Someone else already did the work, right? The problem is that the work on the original is invisible. The copier doesn’t know why it looks the way it looks or feels the way it feels or reads the way it reads. The copied interface is a faux finish.

This is why future iterations of a copied interface begin to break down quickly. The copiers don’t understand where to take it next because they don’t understand the original intention. They don’t know the original moves so they don’t understand the next move.

[…] So bottom line: Copying hurts you. You miss out on what makes something good. Instead, try to be exposed to a variety of perspectives and points of view. Take whatever you find useful and leave the rest behind. Fill in the gaps with your own ideas. In the end you have make your own way forward.

Therefore, understand that using proxies to measure something may be like comparing apples and oranges. So, dig deeper.

[Photo licensed from whoswho]

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