My stats

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This isn’t about numbers, but my relationship with them. It isn’t about giving you a figure. (By the time you reach the end of the next sentence, it will already be out of date. In any case, it isn’t that important.) That’s the thing about stats, they’re always there, ticking away in the darkness, a lone reader from China here, a sudden squall of interest from Germany there. I know this because I used to check them. All of the time. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, in between sessions, on public transport, while running a bath. No sphere of life was immune from them. Not even my sleep: I would dream of more stats -by that I mean bigger numbers- willing them to swell, as though by force of willpower alone I could manufacture more readers. Or rather, hits. I wasn’t interested in readers. I was more interested in hits. The stats. The numbers.

Maybe this obsession stemmed from my early, dysfunctional relationship with maths. (This is not said with pride, like those people who giggle in mock-approval that the geeks shall inherit the earth. In case you don’t believe me, let me be clear: I am ashamed that I am not good at numbers. I was ashamed when my wife had to teach me how to add 10% to a bill so I could tip the waiter without having to get out a pencil. I was ashamed when I took Maths O’ level four times before achieving a C. I was a prefect by then, my younger brothers having sailed through years before me. Not having numbers is like not having words. Or the Beatles. Or air.) I remember only two things from my maths lessons at school, and they are both about stationery. Mr Wigam took a look at my pencil once and said it was so blunt Concorde could have landed on it. Mr Mawer handed back my homework with a frown. He told me: ‘Only a gentleman uses black ink.’ To this day I have no idea what either of them meant. They were relentlessly and ruthlessly impenetrable. Worse, they were bored. Bored of teaching, bored of maths, bored of being in rooms with people ever so slightly less quick on the uptake than they. The third thing I remember is the constant sense of panic, every minute of every lesson, that I would get called upon to say the answer to eight sevens, or supply the decimal of two sixteenths. That’s three things. I can’t even count trauma properly. My parents got me a tutor.

So I looked at my stats and I saw them grow. The first time I had made numbers multiply (without even trying!) in my life. I could do this. Look Mr Wigam, look Mr Mawer! I have made some numbers! So I got obsessed about them. Frying the eggs, even instead of reading. I loved my stats. I loved that you could compare the months against each other, the lovely WordPress layout telling you in simple black and white how May of one year was up (or not) on the previous year, what the average of the month was, the average of the year. I began to multiply and divide by 365, to check. On a calculator of course.

There came a point when I realised the futility of my behaviour. I was reading a book, about Lent of all things (we had not done Lent in my family, but we did do it at school, where it became synonymous with giving things up, like it is everywhere) where I read a sentence about spending less time fretting about stats and more about the content of what I was saying. Which would require some effort, a bit of soul searching, going to the broken places as Hemingway had it. Go to that energy, the book said, not the sugar-rush of your stats. Your hits. Write about those memories (Mr Wigam, Mr Mawer) and the stats would take care of themselves. I tried following this advice for a month, or however much time of Lent was left. I crawled up the walls. Left to my own devices I was forced to start daydreaming again, keeping a notebook, making jottings, even attempting some poems, all in the name of avoiding thinking about the thing I had come to care most about, my stats. I looked at them once a week, on Sundays (the book told me Sundays were feast days, when the rules of Lent were relaxed) and found that my stats were fine. The fretting, the frying of eggs while looking to see how June had gone had not improved them one iota. The stats were looking after themselves.

Which is more or less where I have got to now. I have had a few relapses but am now happy to look at them just once a week, on a Sunday. I do my thing, make the breakfast, read a bit from the Guardian, gaze out of the window, read a bit more. You can get a lot done when you are not obsessing about your stats. Suddenly it is midday and I have not looked at my stats! I fiddle with them for a while, trying to force myself to remember them, knowing that I will have forgotten it all by teatime. Sometimes I take a sneaky look later in the day, but mostly I forget. I stir the soup, looking only at the soup, perhaps with a little music for company, but mainly stirring the soup, perhaps with a glass of wine. Sometimes there are friends. Sunday, the day of the feast.

10 comments

  1. Josephine Corcoran

    Brilliant, funny, and interesting! I had to take Maths twice and I’m convinced I only passed the second time because it snowed on the morning of my exam (in January) and I had to walk to school. My teachers kept asking me if I’d had a difficult journey – “not really, not too bad, no, it wasn’t that hard” – “are you sure, are you *really* sure? it must have been *very* difficult….” “ah, well, it was quite a long way in the snow…… it did get a bit …. er… cold…..” … and I’m convinced they wrote a letter about exceptional circumstances to the examining board and in that way, I was given my ‘C’. And because it’s you, Anthony, I’ll tell you that I’ve always thought God sent the snow. I take Sundays off in Lent as well. Thanks for a gorgeous read! x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nancy Mattson

    Yes, I enjoyed this immensely, but not because I’m bad at maths. Your post is aptly named — this is about being obsessed with statistics, measuring yourself with those little mechanical digits called numbers. It’s the Silas Marner syndrome, for those obsessed with piling up hoards of gold. It’s the weight watchers’ syndrome, for those so obsessed with the fluctuating numbers on a bathroom scale that their day is ruined if the number has gone up since yesterday. I’ve always been accused of having a dominant Pollyanna gene, but my outlook became even sunnier when I threw away the bathroom scale 30 years ago. I know my weight has gone up over those years, but ignoring the exact numbers gives me bliss, and the space to focus on other things.

    I love the way your reflections on stats take you to the broken places which point to sources of energy. I don’t know where Hemingway wrote about that, except in his whole oeuvre. I don’t need a reference — but if you have one handy it might be fun to look up. Research is one of my obsessions, distractions, delights… The Casaubon syndrome? Thanks for this and your other blog posts, Anthony!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for this. I have seen the Hemingway quote many times -it’s in A Farewell to Arms: if people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. With many thanks and best wishes, Anthony

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  3. Raef Kazi

    Great post. I think we all succumb to the temptation that stats offer us, especially when it has become so easy to view how many hits one piece has got and from what country that person is from. But eventually, like you said, it is the content that matters.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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