How Do You Measure 5 Years?

Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?

– Ecclesiastes 1:1-3

How do you know you’re doing good? What does it mean to make a difference? What’s progress? What does it look like to truly help another person?

Here’s one measurement.

Five years; the longest I’ve ever worked for one employer. Over 52K emails received (with fairly aggressive spam filtering and listserv pruning). More than 17K messages sent. If I worked 40 hours a week (ha!) for an average of 47 weeks each year (1880*5=9400), then I either sent or received an average of well over 7 emails per hour (70,000/9400). (This also doesn’t account for thousands of Slack messages.) Did any of those carefully worded responses matter? How much was vanity and vain ambition? How much was meaningless?

Shortly after my 5 year work anniversary, it was revealed to me in a 15 minute meeting that much of what I had been working and striving for was essentially going away, that much of my effort had been meaningless. What’s more, a 15-year career path and skill set was no longer valued. It was said that there was nothing I could have done to avoid this. Overly dramatic? Sure. A good measure of self-righteousness and feeling sorry for oneself. Of course. But it hurts.

Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity…

For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun?

– Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, 22-22

It hurts to care and strive for what now feels like a mirage. It sucks to waste time and life. (Sorry not sorry, the below was fun to make.)

In a fit of self-pity, I told someone that after this I’m just going to care less. (Like petulant child.) It’s a job. It supports my family and for this I’m fantastically fortunate. Does it really need to be more?

I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work
I thank God for the work

-J. Isbell, Something More Than Free

This person replied to me with something like, “lighten up, this happens all the time, it will pass… and oh, you’re always going to care.”

He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.

– Ecclesiastes 3:11

So here we are. Caring. Vain. Grasping at the wind in some perpetually liminal space. How do you know you’re doing good? What is good? How do you measure five years?

Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it…

A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality…

When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to “care” about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing. When one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.

– R. Pirsig, ZMM

Is there another way to measure? A way above measurement? Perhaps caring matters and demonstrates one’s connection to that which does and always will matter: Quality. Perhaps.

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

– R. Pirsig, ZMM

Values matter? And we have some agency here regardless of who employs us or the institutions (and the values they hold) that govern us? And Quality is a path to doing good and helping people? Perhaps.

You point to something as having Quality and the Quality tends to go away. Quality is what you see out of the corner of your eye, and so I look at the lake below but feel the peculiar quality from the chill, almost frigid sunlight behind me, and the almost motionless wind. “Why did we come here?” Chris says. “To see the lake.” He doesn’t like this. He senses falseness and frowns deep, trying to find the right question to expose it. “I just hate this,” he says. A tourist lady looks at him with surprise, then resentment. “Well, what can we do, Chris?” I ask. “We just have to keep going until we find out what’s wrong or find out why we don’t know what’s wrong. Do you see that?” He doesn’t answer. The lady pretends not to be listening, but her motionlessness reveals that she is. We walk toward the motorcycle, and I try to think of something, but nothing comes. I see he’s crying a little and now looks away to prevent me from seeing it.

– R. Pirsig, ZMM

But Quality is maddeningly elusive. What’s more, many can’t or won’t see the world that way. They dismiss measurement of this sort. They perpetuate those structures that keep Quality and work and caring separate and profit from the perceived efficiency. If Quality can separate father and son, it can certainly separate our society. (BTW, re-reading “Zen and the Art of…” as a parent was crushing.) The pursuit of it can even drive one mad. A grasping at the wind.

So how do you measure 5 years? How do you know you’re doing good? What does it mean to make a difference? What’s progress? What does it look like to truly help another person? What is Quality?

I don’t know.

But I do know that I regret spending some of my life on a lot of those emails. I hate so much that I tried for something that was never going to work, that so many knew I was wasting my time, but failed to let me in on the joke. I hate how vain I was (and am) and how reliant I am on external validation. This is decidedly not Quality.

However, I don’t regret the few times in the past 5 years when I thought of someone other than myself. This is, perhaps, a sort of embracing of vanity and the smallness of one’s life. And what did this yield? And how do you measure that? I don’t know. But as I look back, the things that really matter much to me are the people I worked with and messages like these (see also below): “I appreciate all you did for us” “we miss you” “I’m sorry this happened” “it’s strange without you” “it’s not your fault” “thinking of you a lot this week and all the things I’m grateful to you for.” I feel some deep, undeserved, and meaningful Quality at work here. I can see it out of the corner of my eye. It’s hard and painful because I didn’t recognize it at the time and spent so much of the past 5 years looking elsewhere. It was only in disappointment and in not getting what I thought I wanted that I caught a glimpse. But it is an undeniably good and beautiful view.

And the day will come, I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb, my hands are freezing
What I’m working for is something more than free

– J. Isbell, Something More Than Free 

I love those people and am proud to know them. Though I don’t deserve it, it seems that some are proud to know me, too; proud to even love someone like me. That’s enough for today. And hope for tomorrow.

Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going. – R. Pirsig, ZMM

(Perhaps when I blog again in 4 years, I’ll talk more about how much of this is for me tied to generosity. How I want to be more and more generous. How education is, at its core, a generous act and how higher ed is forgetting this — I can’t wait to read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book on the subject. But for now… Isbell)


My good friend Kenny made an important point that I failed to appreciate in this post. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but a core thread that brought us together was our belief in the potential of the middle two “o’s” in MOOC to help people. (It’s why I came.) There is an unmistakable (IMHO) Quality in openness and the intellectual generosity that drives it. Online learning can and does improve access, which also has Quality-like tendencies. Our analytics show that over 10 million people accessed our open (mostly) online courses and learning experiences over the past 6 years. Were a lot of those people rich white guys? Yes. We know that access is necessary, but not sufficient to truly improve one’s life through educational opportunity. But more people gained access to education because of the intellectual generosity of our faculty and staff. While we’ve received many heart-warming messages of thanks, we probably will never know the true impact of this work. I think we sowed most of those seeds with pretty pure hearts. That’s enough, too.

Finally, I’m so encouraged by colleagues who have taken up the mantle of leveraging “innovation” in digital learning to promote public good through access, equality, and social justice. I’ve heard from many of you in the last 24 hours. Please keep up the good fight. We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (a final Biblical metaphor) who have gone before and are still pursuing (see e.g., the “north star” for the HAIL group) Freire’s true generosity (cf. Bloomberg’s gift):

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world. – P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

[Icons: CC-BY Eliricon & Gan Khoon Lay, Noun Project]

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