Think About Your Measuring Sticks

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes the short story Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned. The story is told from the perspective of a father, in roughly the 1920s/1930s, reflecting back on his day while standing at his sleeping son’s bedside. The father thinks about the times he criticized his son during the day, and how his son nevertheless ran into the father’s study at night to give him a hug good night. The line from the story which really stood out to me reads, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

 

The father realizes that he was treating his small child as if he were a full grown man behaving poorly. He was punishing his son for simply being a boy with the interests, the wonders, and the carefree spirit of a kid. It is a great story for any parent who is frustrated that their children don’t behave and act as perfectly as they want, and it is a great story for any of us who find ourselves criticizing the people in our lives.

 

I don’t have kids, so I won’t analyze the story and the quote that stood out to me from the perspective of a parent, but I am married and I do interact with plenty of other people who I know don’t share the same goals, the same genes, and the same history that I do. I find it easy to look at the world and find fault, especially when I see someone I can criticize for not having some virtue that I think that I possess. It is easy to take the yardstick that I measure myself with, and use it to judge others. However, when I do this, I am just like the father, using his measuring stick for evaluating his personal life, and applying that same standard to his small son.

 

Before we begin to measure others with our own yardstick, we should think about the yardsticks we use to measure our own lives. We often default to monetary yardsticks to judge the success of others, a habit that doesn’t accurately capture the value of a human being. People who are in great shape may apply a different yardstick to people, judging others for not being physically fit, without really considering the factors which may limit another person’s ability to get to the gym or buy lots of fruits and veggies. Similarly, parents might look down on people who don’t have kids, people who read a lot might look down on non-readers, and people who drive a Tesla might look down on people who drive trucks. In each instance, someone is taking a value of theirs, assigning it a certain weight, and then judging others using the measuring stick that they have built for their personal life.

 

The story about the father and his son shows us how useless this practice is, and hints at how harmful it can be. The father’s criticism is pushing his son down a path toward resentment, and the father recognizes there is still time for him to reverse the trend and recognizes that he can develop a real relationship with his child. Similarly, applying your own measurement to others is unfair because you do not know what history has shaped the person you are criticizing for not measuring up to your standards. You are not considering the environmental factors that create barriers in their lives to being the perfect person you criticize them for failing to be. People at different stages of their lives with different experiences and backgrounds may hold different values than you do, and that undoubtedly leads them to have different measuring sticks for their own lives. Additionally, it is not the responsibility of anyone else to live up to the measuring stick of your personal life. It is instead your responsibility to live in community with others, and to develop relationships to help others become the best version of themselves, meeting them where they are, understanding who they are, and helping them achieve a meaningful version of success that fits who they are and what society needs. The measuring sticks we need are not the ones we develop on our own, but are those which help us cooperate in society to encourage flourishing for all.

Measuring the Universe from the Inside

The human mind is an amazing tool, but it does go astray from time to time and some of our logical fallacies trip us up. The world of physics, particularly the physicists who are pushing the edge of physics knowledge, run into a lot of challenges that clash with the way we typically think about and understand the universe. Our physics today shows us where our logical fallacies lie and how we must tread the line of reason and nonsense to understand what is truly taking place in the universe.

 

One of the challenges that modern physics presents us with is the need to abandon the idea of objective observers outside the system. Everything in the universe is within the universe. That sounds obvious enough, but it means that everything that is, all matter, all energy, and any observer is in the universe itself. This is important because it means you cannot step outside the universe and look in to see what is happening to make observations and measurements. From the moment the universe began, it has been all there ever is, and there was never anything outside the universe as best as we can understand it.

 

Amanda Gefter tackles this in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn where she writes, “Of course, if that was true, you couldn’t have an observer to make the measurement in the first place. The observer’s got to live in some kind of reality. That was the problem with Bohr’s view. If measurement is the arbiter of reality, then the measuring device has to sit outside reality—which even within the bizarro universe of quantum mechanics, is downright impossible.” Gefter wrote this in response to the challenges of describing particles within quantum mechanics. There are some properties of particles that you can’t define very precisely, or at least that you can’t define simultaneously. We also look at particles within the wave function, indicating that particles follow a general probability pathway until we decide to make a measurement and determine where they are and how they behave.

 

But,  because we are inside the universe, when we make an observation we change the system. We shape the reality that we are trying to measure because we are matter and our measurement tools are made of the same building blocks as the things we are trying to measure, so everything interacts and mutually shapes and has an impact on everything else. There is no way to stand outside the universe and there is no way to observe and measure the system without interacting with it, and when you do, you influence the observations you make.