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Vanity metrics

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How to stop wasting time

If you replayed your life and took the shortest path to where you are today, you’d see what an absurd amount of time was spent on the wrong things.

Some say this is unavoidable—that you need a lot of exploring to find yourself. This isn’t the full story. You can train yourself to identify when you’re working on the wrong thing—in real time as it’s happening.

This ability comes from startups. Startup founders have a term for the wrong metric to focus on: a vanity metric. For example, how many people visit your website is a vanity metric. The more rewarding metric is how many buy from you.

Bold people will look inward to identify their personal vanity metrics: they assess the metrics they live by. In doing so, they avoid the wrong paths.

Take two examples:

There’s a way to never again obsess over the wrong metric. That’s what this post introduces—so you make better use of your remaining years.

How to spot vanity metrics

The first step to overcoming vanity metrics is spotting them. The stakes are high: focusing on vanity metrics is living in a fantasy world.

Vanity metrics are: 

  1. Intermediary goals that occur before the fulfilling goals that matter.
  2. Easier to accomplish than our true goals.
  3. Frequently encouraged by society (everyone posting on social media about the number of books they’ve read gets many likes, reinforcing the optics that propel vanity metrics).

In this post, we'll use three frameworks to uncover whether the goal you're focusing on is worthwhile:

  1. The Goal Path: Goals where we create change.
  2. The Ability Spectrum: Goals where we signal our ability.
  3. The Virtue Spectrum: Goals where we signal our virtues.

Let's break them down.

1. The Goal Path: When we want change

If your goal is to create something or change something, you'll use what I call The Goal Path framework. Examples of “creating" or “changing” include deepening friendships, getting a new job, or building an audience.

With The Goal Path framework, you start by drawing a line on a piece of paper:

Along that line, you place the steps required to reach the ultimate goal. If our ultimate goal is starting a successful side project, the steps in our path might be:

  1. Hours worked
  2. Tasks completed
  3. Progress made on the key parts of the project
  4. Project completion
  5. Desired outcome achieved

And here’s a goal path for building a newsletter:

  1. People visit your website
  2. People subscribe
  3. People open your email
  4. People read your email
  5. People click links in your email and take action

Can you spot the vanity metrics above? Vanity metrics—the metrics we’re at risk of narrowly focusing on—are most commonly found near the beginning of a path. That’s because the earliest steps, such as website visits and email subscribes, are the furthest from the ultimate goal. When we over-optimize either of these early steps, we see extremely diminishing returns if few people are subsequently subscribing, reading, and clicking.

The only time to obsess over an early step is when it’s a bottleneck that prevents you from reaching the next step. If a step is not a bottleneck, you should typically 80/20 it and move on.

Below, each bullet point represents a goal path. The arrows between steps indicate the progression toward the ultimate goal. Notice how your friends who get trapped by vanity metrics never make it past the first couple layers:

Finance

Work

Politics

Health

Routinely sanity check whether you're stuck on an intermediary step toward a goal.

Time and resources

Let’s look at our Goal Path diagram again:

Time and Resources are the assets that are turned into steps. As a result, they are always found at the beginning of a path. That has a huge implication: time and resources are always vanity metrics.

People boast “I pulled an all-nighter at work” or "I spent $100,000 on a business coach!" These are the worst vanity metrics possible. They’re the very first step in the path! They're not necessarily indicative of the quality or volume of output. Any fool can throw more time or money at a problem. But it takes discipline to turn time and money into ultimate goals with efficiency—if that’s what you’re aiming for.

Life is not about “putting in the hours.” It’s about seeing results and enjoying the journey.

2. When we signal our ability

Sometimes, our goal isn’t to create or change something. Instead, it’s to broadcast our abilities.

For example, you can get an MBA to signal your entrepreneurial prowess or get verified on Twitter to signal your clout. These goals are part of what I call The Ability Spectrum, which is our second framework for avoiding vanity metrics. The Ability Spectrum helps us identify credentials that aren’t true reflections of one's ability.

Take, for example, this clichéd bio:

“Forbes 30 Under 30. Harvard MBA. 1M Instagram followers.”

Each of those is a vanity metric because each can be gamed. This doesn't mean they lack signaling power, but that you can't take them at face value. Whenever a signal can be gamed, it’s not a complete representation of the underlying ability, and it must be discounted.

Let me show you what I mean by breaking down those claims one at a time.

Forbes 30 Under 30

Harvard MBA

1M Instagram followers

This brings us to the diagram for The Ability Spectrum. There are no steps on this spectrum because it’s a gradient instead of a sequence. The Ability Spectrum assesses how representative a signal is of your ability.

Easy-to-game accomplishments prioritize lower-effort social optics over accurately representing your ability. That makes them vanity metrics. If your goal is to impress talented people and to have your work outlast your lifetime, seek accomplishments that are hard to game.

Hard-to-game accomplishments have something in common: they create valuable output. For example, whereas earning an MBA or receiving an award creates no output, creating content that people actually enjoy—as in, receives high social engagement—does.

In short, if your goal is to do more than make a quick buck, let your output be your signal—not your credentials. Smart laypeople and subject matter experts will see through credentials to focus on your output. And those are the people you’d want to collaborate with, who’d fund your ideas, and who others respect.

When trying to impress people, it’s wise to pause and ask yourself if you're targeting the people you care about.

(I recognize that you often have no choice but to reach for shiny credentials. They may be needed to advance your career. If they're unavoidable, they're unavoidable. But you can change your relationship to these vanity metrics.)

3. When we signal our virtues

The final category that your goals fall into is The Virtue Spectrum. This spectrum measures how authentically you care about a virtue you associate yourself with.

Take, for example, the act of tweeting about a political issue. Unless you're a whistleblower or sharing breaking news, tweeting your support or antagonism is typically low impact. On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, greater impact might come from running for office to affect policy. That’s very hard—unrealistic for most—and signals higher authenticity.

In short, how much we authentically care about something is reflected by how much meaningful change we attempt to produce.

When you post a snarky tweet, you’re likely not changing minds. You're earning kudos from other low-effort virtue signalers. You don’t need the admiration of these people.

When you signal a virtue, you fall somewhere on The Virtue Spectrum:

The Virtue Spectrum differs from the prior Ability Spectrum in that it uses effort instead of gameability to measure your authenticity. A theme is emerging: vanity metrics are the antithesis of authenticity.

Let’s look at two examples of turning low effort virtue signals into increasingly higher effort ones:

When your action is high-effort, you’re putting skin in the game—your time, reputation, and resources—to earnestly produce change.

Let’s look at an example. When Twitter users recommend other Twitter accounts to follow, you’ll often see their recommendations are socially biased toward people like themselves. Their followers thoughtfully call on them for greater diversity. There are two ways to call people out:

  1. Low effort: Merely call the Tweeter out on their bias. This is fly-by Tweeting.
  2. High effort: Explain your reasoning as to why they should do better and suggest diversified accounts to follow.

People accustomed to low-effort callouts might think, “But, calling attention to a transgression is sufficient because it brings awareness.” Yes, awareness helps. It's absolutely better than nothing. But merely calling attention to something is the lowest-effort move possible. It’s like pointing your finger at an injured kid in the playground so others see them—instead of helping her back to her feet. If you’re in a position to contribute, why not do a little more to actually produce change?

Worse yet, chronic low-effort actions can mislead you into thinking you're having a meaningful impact and that you're doing all that needs to be done. There aren't enough people left over who are actually doing the real work.

In short, whenever you act in a low-effort manner, you risk broadcasting that your objective isn’t solving the problem. Instead, it can look like you're trying to broadcast your virtues. People outside the finger-pointing club detect this then dismiss you. The people who transgress don't learn—they're just put into fight-or-flight mode—and little meaningful change is produced.

Avoiding vanity metrics

Everything you did this week had a degree of vanity to it. Your objective is to keep that vanity from leading you away from your real goals.. If you’re proud of how many hours you worked yesterday or how many likes your Tweet earned, ask yourself if you’re proud of the right metric.

Vanity not only makes you inauthentic to competent people, it’s also an enormous drain on your time. Companies that over-optimize for PR and venture capital often end up failing. Social influencers who indiscriminately grow their follower count can't manage to push 100 t-shirts. 

Do not wait for hindsight to be 20/20—you can have clarity in the present too. You do this by not obsessing over goals that don’t matter. So when you find yourself hung up on a certain metric, ask yourself:

To reduce this article to one sentence: Don't inherit goals without sanity checking them. Don't outsource them to society. By default, society prioritizes vanity metrics because even the lazy can achieve them.

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Julian Shapiro

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