The Rational Man Meets Numbers

I think it was last week when this conversation came up at the dinner table. I don’t remember how it started exactly, but someone said something like “achieving success is all about maximizing profits”, and someone else said “but what if you measure success with a non-monetary criterion?” And then my mind starting rolling .The seed of thought was planted in my head. No matter where I go, when I come across something relevant to this topic, my mind always finds its way back here.

To be honest, I didn’t need someone to tell me that statement. It’s how I felt all along. Money isn’t everything. It’s just the fact that this conversation came up, and it sparked up a discussion for me with myself. As always, the question to ask is why. Why does money hold such a high priority in decision-making? And then I realized, I’ve read this somewhere before. My IB Geography textbook. When we were learning about agriculture, we made the ‘rational man’ assumption – that every farmer wants to maximize their profits – and the reason why we used this premise is because money is an easy thing to measure. It’s quantitative, it’s well-defined, and it’s has great characteristics as a criterion.

Following this trait of thought, you then realize that these numerical benchmarks are placed on everything in your life. It maybe be in simple things such as recipes, saying ‘half a teaspoon of salt’ rather than ‘a pinch of salt’; or our conventional clock, giving us an exact number rather than just ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’. That’s all fine and dandy. I mean, that’s why we come up with conventions anyway – they’re useful. But as you get older and experience more of life, you start to feel the pressure given to you by these numbers. It defines your grade on your report card. The sales quota you haven’t met for this month. I find it interesting, because at the heart of it, math is an imaginary concept (and if you disagree, please show me what three is – not three apples or three oranges, just three)… but this abstract idea can affect us in such a concrete way.

With all this in mind, I thought to myself, where can I find some criterion that escapes from these numbers? Epiphany number two. There are sheets of qualitative, descriptive criteria that cross my path every so often. Book reports. Essays. Oral presentations. We use criteria sheets for these projects because it’s not like math – you can just say whether something is definitely right or wrong. Even with the criteria set in stone, all clearly prescribed, different people will still have their opinions about the same work of art. A good set of criteria will help converge these different ways of thinking, but I still wouldn’t expect the exact same assessment coming from multiple people. And why is that? Because such qualitative measures can be easy influenced by your own personal experiences, ideal, morals, and values.

Now here’s the thing. It’s one thing to view this diversity as an inconvenience, and I get it. After all, that is why we have man-made systems like currency and units. We’ll never be able to compare one person’s opinion with another (because of everything aforementioned), so we just base our decision-making on a common benchmark. But for me, situated in this environment and hearing what locals have to say about my story, I almost feel that people neglect qualitative measurements because they fear it. They fear the questions others will ask when they do something out of the ordinary. They fear having to explain, and others not understanding their reasons because people are simply different. Over the past three months here, I have honestly felt this fear at times, and I understand it as well.

People don’t realize that this is a tragedy. Every time we choose to ignore our emotions and intuition, and base our decisions purely on reasoning, we are also unconsciously ranking our qualitative senses a bit lower on the list of importance (and note: I’m using ‘emotions’ to cover all our opinions based on individual experience). I’m talking about things such as happiness, or satisfaction, or sense of belonging – things that you can’t assign a number to, but are arguably the most important things in your life. At first, it’s just your own comfort that you’re putting down. Then you realize everyone else is doing the same to themselves, and it becomes okay to disregard ‘emotions’ in general. Okay, fine… I can live with people putting efficiency over quality if it just means getting rude remarks fired at you in public. But no, it’s not just that. We are losing diversity, which is something that I really embrace about Canada. I was just telling a friend the other day about how there are no stereotypes here. The jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, geeks, goths, hippies – you know, your usual high school groupings – there aren’t nearly as many of them here. People’s values are almost all the same.

There is one conversation in particular that really struck me. During one of our free English classes at church, we asked the students to talk about what dreams they have, and one person answered “I am a realistic person. I have no dreams”. “Okay, so describe a realistically achievable job that you would like to do”. “I have never thought about anything aside from what I am already doing, because that would be impractical”. This person is not the only case of this kind I’ve come across. Some people have dreams, but prioritize other things before them. Other people actually have no dreams, because they never thought about the issue. They don’t have career and personal planning classes like we do in Canada, and I have never appreciated it more. Hearing all these stories here truly saddens my heart.

Let’s stop and look back for a minute. I have now gotten to the point where I’m talking about lost dreams and a monotonic society – all because we place emphasis on quantitative numbers rather than qualitative assessments? Okay, I admit it sounds far-fetched, but I know it’s not irrelevant. Your brain draws relations between these concepts, whether or not you’re conscious of it. It’s like asking why skin colour causes a big division in people. Of course, it doesn’t in my opinion… but how do some people come up with racist ideas in the first place? Well, have you heard what terms we’re putting synonymous with black and white? White: pure, cheerful, sparkling, innocent. Black: gloomy, evil, scary, cheerless. Our original use for those words as synonyms didn’t refer to people, but when these terms are being used time and time again, it’s hard to keep them completely unrelated. Simply put, it’s an act of brainwashing. Here in Hong Kong, I feel that the act of depreciating the value of qualitative measurements is a brainwashing toxin, and it’s affecting much more than just the convenience of your own decision-making.

I’m sure this happens everywhere. It’s too easy to rely solely on numbers because you can skip the hassle of weighing the pros and cons that are hard to measure. But I must say, I’ve found a lot more inspiration regarding this topic here in Hong Kong because there’s a lot to contrast with my life in Canada. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but simply that they’re different. However, if there is one thing I must say, it is this declaration of gratitude towards every single person that said to me “it’s okay to be different”. At the heart of it, that’s what respect really is, and this 21-year-old can’t help but feel amused to learn a little more of what you already know as life moves on.


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