Paul Graham’s essay, “The Lesson to Unlearn,” is about teaching people to not just pass a test, but to find valuable answers. If people are incentivized to get a passing grade, they’ll focus on finding more efficient ways to reach their goal. However, what happens when there isn’t a simple, testable question to be asked? What happens when we add the complexity of the real world? As we think about our own careers and businesses, we have to understand the difference between the metrics we’ll be measured by and the measurements that actually matter.
In school, the best way to pass a history test is to break the information down into the most testable chunks. The year an event happened, the duration of a conflict, the names of the people involved – these are easily converted to questions. Graham calls studying with the test structure in mind “hacking” the test. Some people are really, really good at this. The question we must ask is: what’s more important – passing the test or developing a nuanced understanding of the subject material? We can have both, but the institution and the students will need to understand the rank order.
Graham’s focus is on the startup community where he regularly meets with founders who grew up as excellent test-hackers. When it comes time to build a business, they look for the most efficient way to hack the structure. Capital raises, expanding user bases, growth curves – these are all metrics people measure startup success by. It’s the same problem as test hacking in school: doing work that looks great is not the same thing as doing great work. Again, the rank order matters.
For many, success in the business world looks a lot like success in the classroom. There are leaders, peers, and measurable metrics. The issue is that businesses don’t solve problems to pass tests. Businesses solve problems to answer their customers’ needs. Businesses that can correctly give their customers what they want, go on to hit their metrics. Businesses who hit their metrics and ignore their customers’ needs might succeed in the short-run, but like successful history test-hackers and confused startup founders, they’ll struggle to find any long-term context. Over time, their short-sightedness will turn into a struggle to survive.
It’s easy to learn the wrong lesson and it’s easy to lose focus. It’s hard- really hard – to implement any system let alone run a school or found a company. This isn’t a rant against the education system or corporate goals. It is a rant in favor of common sense. We can and should often ask, “Does the customer care about this metric? Why?” If we are willing to have the conversation, then we can be willing to put things into the right order. We don’t have to hack the results, we have to understand the causes.
Unlearn the wrong lessons. Then learn, relearn, and reinforce the right ones. Over, and over, and over.