The Numbers Game: The Modern Model of Success


"Would you like to scrimmage or play the numbers game?" Before I've finished speaking, a collective shout of triumph emerges from the throng of eager kids, frayed pennies hanging haphazardly over their small frames and soccer balls bouncing in their hands.

"The numbers game!" they announce. It appears they already know the future that awaits them.

From elementary school to middle school to high school, as we try to figure out who we are, to our dismay we soon realize that the answer is far more austere than we may have expected. Despairingly, we realize that our worth will come to be defined by an entity we already may dislike due to its mathematical connotations: We are a number. Not just a single number, but a set of numbers dependent upon the sum of our grades, our tests scores, our height, weight, and BMI, to name a few. Follow the rules, study the answers, conform to the system, and you will be successful. Be tall, especially if you're a boy, but not too tall, if you're a girl. Eating disorders are a sign of weakness; don't be too thin or too fat, work out, but if you're a girl, don't exercise too much; men don't like girls who are stronger than them. Fall within the normal range, and you're a success.

As we approach college and the eventual workplace, we gather that we are by no means done yet. How successful will we be? The common perception is that the response lies in the latest ranking of institutions of higher learning distributed by US News and World Report. What place does your school occupy? Eventually, the answer is in the length of the figure representing our salary. By this point, though, we begin hearing a change in rhetoric from those who have come before us: to be successful -- in other words, to earn this prodigious salary -- we must break the rules. After being directed to stifle our creativity for the purpose of navigating the rigid social and educational system that was our adolescence, we are then told to flip the switch, to take risks and break the mold, to turn around and face the current as though it is something we are stronger than despite having allowed it to carry us downstream until this point in our lives.

In our late teens and early 20s, we thus face upon a paradox. We are still a number, an admissions statistic, a time in a race, another tally for a sufferer of a supposedly incurable disease. We are still told to limit our words, informed that our stories -- who we are and who we want to be -- can be quantified and constrained. Yet we are also told that there are no bounds as to our potential.

As a cross country runner, I've often heard the phrase "numbers don't lie." One's time said to be is a representation of their ability, their determination, and their future prospects as an athlete. But numbers can lie. A set of numbers divided by a colon fails to capture the heart, drive, and challenges one is facing. Numbers fail to encapsulate the unique nature of each and every person's ability, who they have been and who they will be. Valuable traits such as altruism and emotional intelligence fall victim to an overemphasis on GPA and other similar figures. These traits are, arguably, more often than not crucial in determining the overall success of one's life. As someone who has struggled to come to terms with being viewed in the context of numerals, to look past the assumptions made about me as with the generalizations I made about societal expectations, I can say this: Success and worth cannot be quantified. We are more than a number. But we are all still trapped in the numbers game.