“The most fascinating thing in the world is a mirror…”

mirror.jpgWhat do we see in the mirror of our data?

A couple of recent stories bring this question to mind. The first comes from Adam Bryant’s profile in the New York Times of Jim Collins, author of business advice books that have sold millions of copies. Collins is tremendously successful; a few hours of his time is worth tens of thousands of dollars. One of his tools of success, according to the Times, is an amazing regime of self tracking.

JIM COLLINS calls his third-floor offices in the heart of this
mountain-ringed city a “management lab.” But little distinguishes his
workspace from most others, save for a few things.

There is,
for example, the small sign outside the door: “ChimpWorks.” In case
anybody doesn’t get the point, a large Curious George doll sits in a
leather chair, delivering the we-ask-a-lot-of-questions-here punch
line. And in a corner of the white board at the end of his long
conference room, Mr. Collins keeps this short list:

Creative 53%

Teaching 28%

Other 19%

he explains, is a running tally of how he’s spending his time, and
whether he’s sticking to a big goal he set for himself years ago: to
spend 50 percent of his workdays on creative pursuits like research and
writing books, 30 percent on teaching-related activities, and 20
percent on all the other things he has to do.

These aren’t
ballpark guesstimates. Mr. Collins, who is 51, keeps a stopwatch with
three separate timers in his pocket at all times, stopping and starting
them as he switches activities. Then he regularly logs the times into a

Oh, he sleeps with vigor, too. He figures that he needs to get 70 to
75 hours of sleep every 10 days, and once went to a sleep lab to learn
more about his own patterns. Now — surprise, surprise — he logs his
time spent on a pillow, naps included, and monitors a rolling average.

I start falling below that,” he says, pointing to the short list on his
whiteboard, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”

Self-tracking appears here as a means of perfect self-control, and feats of extreme self-control are ways to cultivate and display power. James Dao discussed this recently in a short essay [requires registration], also in the New York Times, about the American general newly in charge of the war in Afghanistan. Lt. General Stanley A. McChristal has not yet revealed any of his self-tracking strategies, but his advance publicity includes information about his extremely disciplined lifestyle, his constant athletic training, and the fact that he eats only one meal a day “to avoid sluggishness.”

Theatrical displays of personal precision are one version of self-tracking, but there are others. In the summer 2009 issue of strategy+business, the tech analyst Esther Dyson says that there are two big phenomena defining the internet right now. The first is social media, the second is the quantification of personal life. This is interesting because self-quantification is still outside the mainstream, but within the tech/entrepreneurial circles Dyson inhabits, it is clearly a powerful force.

Five years ago you’d read about diabetics who had to take their blood
sugar readings or about these weirdos who put on pedometers when they
walked. Now, that kind of measurement is everywhere. Web sites that
seem at first glance like entertainment or service media are really
devoted to managing and interpreting customers’ data about themselves.
Mint and Wesabe track your banking data and financial transactions.
Skydeck organizes cell-phone records; you can see whom you call most
frequently or whom you used to call but haven’t called recently. You
can compare your phone call patterns against other people’s. 23andMe
does the same thing for genomes. The most fascinating thing in the
world is a mirror.

I think it is interesting to post this quote from Dyson next to the extract from the profile of Collins and the anecdote about General McChristal, because when most people look in the “mirror” of their data they will not see the perfect image of an asectic warrior or a polished and wealthy business consultant. They will see some order and some chaos. Some intriguing clues that may hold answers to questions they have, or some curious patterns they can make use of for self-expression or social connection. Most interesting will be the things that appear in the data that we did not anticipate. Maybe we will learn something new!

Spending a lot of time looking in the mirror is unhealthy for anybody past the age of adolescence.  “The most fascinating thing in the world is a mirror.”  Isn’t that statement kind of immature? And yet as far as personal data is concerned, I sympathize. The interesting thing about these unanalyzed numbers is the hint they give us that we don’t completely know who we are. Suddenly realizing that you don’t really know yourself; this is the pain of adolescence, and a great spur to growth.

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6 Responses to “The most fascinating thing in the world is a mirror…”

  1. J says:

    I kind of took the “The most fascinating thing in the world is a mirror” almost as an ironic statement. Maybe that’s just me.

  2. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Prof. Mart Gross at the University of Toronto (my first biology professor) said once that biologically speaking, we are programmed to spend most of our time thinking about ourselves, then about our immediate family, then our wider circle of friends, then the larger world. So on a daily basis, children dying in Africa are just not as present in our minds as the papercut on our pinky finger. This has obvious survival benefits from an evolutionary perspective, and may also explain some of the fascination with self-tracking activities.

  3. Gary Wolf says:

    @J – Yes, I read some irony, too, and tried to address it implicitly. I think Dyson’s irony was a bit cynical. She was not speaking for herself, necessarily, but for the “customers” of the potential products that readers of strategy&business might launch. I think the self-tracking stories in the Collins profile were also influenced by marketing considerations. I’m interested in this, but even more interested in the use of self-tracking to explore uncharted territory.
    @Alexandra – thanks for this reference. I went and read an interesting paper by Gross, that concludes with this paragraph. (“Williams’s Principle” in the passage below, refers to the fact that reproductive success today comes at the cost of reproductive success in the future.) The article is about parental care in fishes. At the end it suggests that quantifying the costs of parental care may have implications for human life.
    “Most human parents will experience both
    the joy and the suffering that is parental
    investment. While the sacrifice made by parents
    is readily evident, from an evolutionary
    perspective, this sacrifice is no more altruistic
    than breathing. Like other species, human
    parental investment behavior originated by
    natural selection to better project the parent’s
    genes into the future. Therefore,
    humans have been molded, as have fish, by
    the laws of Williams’s Principle. Given this
    evolutionary history, humans are expected to
    calculate optimal investments in their offspring,
    incorporating those factors that influence
    the net value of care. This helps to
    explain why researchers find human parental
    care to vary with the relative value of current
    offspring (e.g., Lycett and Dunbar 1999),
    their genetic relatedness to the parent (e.g.,
    Daly and Wilson 1999), and additional adult
    mating opportunities (e.g., Gangestad and
    Simpson 2000).
    “Can human society adequately address such
    issues as parenthood, birth control, abortion,
    adoption, postpartum depression, child abuse,
    and child neglect, to name but a few, without
    understanding their biological causes? In this
    light, the full contribution of Williams’s Principle to human society remains to be seen.”
    From: “The Evolution of Parental Care” by Mart R. Gross in THE QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY Volume 80, March, 2005

  4. James Lytle says:

    And if you look at a mirror, walk away and forget who you are, then you are a fool, more or less, for having seen a true reflection of yourself, you then take no action over your life or others to make it better. We need to be a cognition of self-quantification that is useful and philanthropic unless, like a carnival, the picture will be fun but won’t even allow us to fix our hair – let alone economic, relational, and environmental problems.

  5. Steve Gottschalk says:

    There are a lot of interesting examples of self-quantification in this piece, such as Wesabe, Mint.com, Skydeck, and 23AndMe. It’s as though people are looking for imperical data on their own activity to prove or disprove anecdotal evidence in their day-to-day lives.

  6. bill patton says:

    fascinating collection of self monitoring tools – i’d like to add http://www.logsitall.com to the list – i built it to log my workouts/personal stats/golf scores – it also has a universal performance ranking which allows me to then see how my performance ranks against others of similar age ranges. You can log your runs, set a benchmark goal by looking at others, then chart your progress. so far we’re up to about 10,000 users from 23 countries. – bill patton http://www.logsitall.com

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