Discover more from Speedrunning Towards Bethlehem
Legibility and Happiness
On the trap of valuing what is easy to measure
“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Among my favorite stories on the peril of over-emphasizing metrics comes from the 1700s and takes place in the forests of Germany.Through science and stereotypical German efficiency, planners sought to enhance the timber output of its sprawling forests. It was an endeavor grounded in reason: measure, manage, and magnify the forest yields, thereby increasing revenue to the state. It was the age of Enlightenment and revolution, and a state needed every advantage it could get.
The productivity of the new forests reversed the decline in the domestic wood supply, provided more uniform stands and more usable wood fiber, raised the economic return of forest land, and appreciably shortened rotation times.
Of course in the end, things did not turn out so well.
A century passed before the fruits of their efficiency withered. The scientifically optimized forests, purged of underbrush, collapsed as sterile monocultures, with productivity diminished by 20 to 30 percent. Such was the devastation that a new term, Waldsterben, or "forest death," was coined for the most catastrophic failures of this experiment.
This story is told not as a history lesson, but as a metaphor for the dangers of 'legibility' – transforming an elusive, complex quality into a stark numerical metric for the sake of control. And it's a concept that's been rattling around in my mind as I navigate my first extended hiatus from work. The desire for a measurable, quantified life isn't only the domain of states or corporations; it's a temptation that often entraps us as individuals as well.
Thanks for reading Speedrunning Towards Bethlehem! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
My friend Daniel (the same one who took me on my first trip to EDC) recently told me about a friend he visited in NYC. She was an engineer at a large tech firm, whose life seemed to be consumed by work. Not an uncommon story, but this relentless pursuit of work seemed alien to him, and he was curious what motivated her.
I am speculating here on someone I don’t know via a secondhand account, but given she attended a top engineering school and was now working at a prestigious tech company, I suspected she was the kind of person who performed well in school and was motivated to continue achieving success. And how did one measure success today? Via legible metrics: salary, title, and a brand name firm.
If your end goal truly is to maximize salary and title, then great; continue grinding and climbing. I pass no judgment. I’d done something similar, struggling to leave my job and take a sabbatical because it would cause our net worth to go down, apparently the only way I knew how to value my life.
But Germany’s misadventures should warn us that a complex system’s success could not be reduced to timber output alone. Similarly, our lives cannot be reduced to a series of professional milestones. We must learn to balance the less quantifiable (or entirely subjective) aspects of our lives against the weight of legible metrics if we wish to avoid our version of Waldsterben.
When you start seeing legibility as shorthand for success, you notice it everywhere: It appears not only in our chasing of salaries and titles, but in the square footage of our house, the number of followers we have on Twitter (or Substack!), the brand of car we drive. We're so focused on these tangible, legible markers that rarely stop to ask whether they actually represent the true outcomes we want. I rationally know that it’s not the titles or the salary or net worth that generate my happiness, but they’re easy to measure, and knowing something is different from living it.
The challenge then is to resist the lure of legibility in defining our happiness. Legibility is not inherently bad; there is literal value in watching your salary grow. But for many of us, including myself, the mistake is equating these metrics to success simply because they are all that we have. Joy, friendships, community, personal growth are much harder to reduce to a number than money — measure away if you want, but remember Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
Often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, but maybe actually from a paper by William Bruce Cameron?
Astute history-loving readers may note Germany as a state did not exist in the 1700s. This is true. I just didn’t want to write Prussia and Saxony over and over again.
Lest you think this is merely a 300 year old tale used to set up this piece, the issues around how to manage Germany’s forests persist to this day. The Norway Spruce that was aggressively planted in the monoculture forests of the 1700s continues to be a major part of German forests, accounting for more than half the timber harvest. But now a changing climate threatens them, and new debates on what to do are ongoing:
Some advocates want Germany’s government and forest industry to stop promoting the widespread planting of commercially valuable trees such as Norway spruces, and instead encourage landowners to allow forests to regenerate on their own. Others say that to meet economic, environmental, and climate goals, Germany must double down on tree planting—but using more resilient varieties, including some barely known in Germany today.