Anyone who's worked in a big organisation will know about KPIs — key performance indicators. Numbers to measure how the organisation is functioning.
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We have dozens in hospitals — time from arrival to discharge, infection rate, falls rate, seclusions rate, sick leave rates etc, etc.
They annoy some people who claim they're "too simplistic" or "don't give the full picture", or that "we should be focused on caring, not numbers." All of these criticisms are true, but the numbers still rule the roost.
Why? Because we can look at them and get a snapshot of how we're going, we can compare ourselves month to month and we can compare ourselves with other hospitals. Just like measuring a patient's temperature or blood pressure, they give us a hint of whether problems are brewing.
They don't tell us everything, but they tell us something — something that's often very useful.
Pick a KPI to measure your life
So, what if you could pick some KPIs to measure how your life was going? What would you choose?
Would you focus on yourself? Am I happy? Are my relationships fulfilling? Am I healthy? Do I have a steady source of food? Do I have a roof over my head? Am I successful? Are my ambitions on track? Do I have enough Facebook friends?
Maybe you would focus on others: am I supporting those I love? Am I helping people less fortunate than myself? Am I a good parent/lover/partner?
Perhaps yours is an environmental KPI — am I kind to animals? Am I using the recycling bin enough? Am I supporting industries that share my values?
When personal times are tough, the KPI might just be to get through another day.
Your KPIs will change according to your phase of life, your circumstances, your dreams and aspirations — but is there a king of KPIs? Is there one number, one goal that trumps all others? The pursuit of pleasure perhaps. Inner peace? World peace?
But remember, it has to be something you can reliably measure — not just an impression.
Possible life KPIs
The commonest KPI I hear in everyday conversation is wealth. Lots of people seem to value their life according to their net worth — how much they earn and how much they have accumulated. I can see the attraction — it's easy, money is simple to count. It's universal, every country has a currency. It's hard not to admire wealth and aspire to it — we're taught from a young age that it means achievement.
But of course that's not always the case. Lots of money is inherited — so it's just a lottery. You're just lucky. Also, a lot is ill-gotten in one way or another — theft, corporate greed, corruption and the like. Furthermore, research tells us that rich people aren't any happier — your life satisfaction increases with salary until you get up to about one and a third times the average wage, and above that, extra money adds nothing to happiness.
What about family KPIs? How many kids you have, how long you've stayed married, how often you are in contact with rellies? Kisses per week? Sex per month (or perhaps sex per year!)? On the surface this seems pretty safe, but again, it leaves a little more to luck than I'd like. Number of kids is largely in the hands of timing and biology.
And marriage is a lottery in my (divorced) humble opinion. Did you really have much idea about choosing partners at the ripe old age of about 25? Or 30? Or 50? Did you stay together through clever communication skills and honourable love, or was it the kids, fear, appearances, or worse still, apathy?
How about physical attributes: how good you look? (Oh my god, you're a nine out of ten!) Or how tall you are? I once had a patient who tragically, late in life, became paraplegic. She was a tall, proud woman, and her main source of self-worth was her height. "I don't care about the wheelchair, I just hate that people no longer have to look up to speak to me," she said. She was very sad.
Your weight? Your youthfulness? How many hairs you have left on your head? Again, a bit like family, there is as much luck as effort. As a KPI it's a bit risky — you could easily lose it through no fault of your own. Ageing is cruel like that.
If you can't rely on wealth, family or your brilliant physique, then what about friends? Can you count how many you have, how often they call, or better still visit? Friends are a great KPI for how friendly and social YOU are, but is being social that important to you? Maybe you're the type who likes your own company, or likes one or two close confidants. Maybe you only want Facebook friends whose phone numbers you know by heart.
KPIs are sometimes used as window dressing — to hide problems. Sometimes people manipulate their KPIs. They pretend they are wealthy. They collect superficial friends to hide insecurity. They build muscles to hide fear. US novelist Kurt Vonnegut suggested we are what we pretend to be — I doubt he was correct.
The last person you want to fool is yourself
The reason I like the idea of KPIs for living is that numbers don't lie. It's so easy to fool yourself that you are on track if you don't actually make some effort to self-analyse — and in order to avoid this turning into a situation where you're deluding yourself, you need something to measure. Something that you can't manipulate. Manipulation catches up with you eventually. You pay the piper in the long run.
Of course I'm not suggesting you set up a daily dashboard on your computer, or worse still on your Facebook page, of how you are travelling through life. But I'm suggesting that we each think a little about how we are going. And that we don't delude ourselves. If we spot a dodgy KPI, we think about it. Maybe ask others what they think. Take some time, and make a plan. Fix the KPI.
There is a lot in life we can't control, but there are many things we can influence. Finding the right KPI might help.
Steve Ellen is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.