On numbers

Ito, 2015.

Ito, 2015.

One day, when I was in a cafe I heard a girl talking to her friend, saying that her photo uploaded couldn’t get more than a hundred likes as usual while she regarded it as a beautiful one.

More and more numbers are everywhere in our daily lives, and we tend to believe that they are the objective indicators which can explain well what on the earth has been happening, and how we are.

Scores do have some influences on us: they help us maintain our performance and even push us forward. We monitor them from time to time, and detect if we fail a little bit suddenly. If it is so, we can feel so guilty that we work harder until reaching back the usual scores.




Hong Kong, 2015.

Hong Kong, 2015.

Numbers are not necessarily meaningful


But we sometimes take care numbers too much! Focusing too much on the results can lead to ignorance of our true feelings and the whole process. Say during my childhood, I usually got 90–100 marks in dictations, with only one or two mistakes made. But one time I got ZERO during my secondary studies and I cried. I blamed myself on having a failure. I overlooked the fact that I just missed a sentence with more than 20 words, and with 5 marks per word of course all the marks were deducted. By looking back, the mistakes here occupied a small part in the dictation, and the zero mark didn’t match this fact.

Not all numbers reflect facts in the world. Likes and followers on social media like Facebook and Instagram are typical examples. The number of likes does not imply how people appreciate your works, and hate too if they don’t ‘like’! There are a combination of factors contributing to it, like the time of sharing, in what circumstances people read it (on trains or at home?), whether the social media blocks the content from the news feed (less exposure to the public) and other things we still don’t know. Tapping ‘like’ button is a kind of intuition. We should care of it.

And the battery percentage on the phone too! It is constructed to let us understand battery life better, but can’t be regarded as the real thing. The number suddenly jumps in a second (e.g. 42% to 39%) is not a big problem indeed, unless it becomes 1% which can annoy us. Turning off the figure is sometimes preferable.




Coffee Server, 2015.

Coffee Server, 2015.

Set minimum requirement rather than goals


Number is a kind of design. I did not study design at school and don’t know how design school thinks about numbers, but I find that it can be a strong reminder at least to me. That’s why number, other than warm colors (e.g. red), is always applied in different parts of society to arouse people’s awareness. That’s why a number of indicators has been introduced to get the public into more habits including reading and sports.

But it just ‘forces’ us to check them every second, while it fails to bring us enjoyable experiences. For some people, they are tired of the scores and as a result may give up some habits. It’s time for us to focus on awareness to ourselves other than looking at numbers: Do we feel happy or not? Can I really understand the concepts and knowledge, even though I got full marks in an examination? Do the scores really reflect the status about me? Number is useful with contexts. Asking the above questions can let us truly understand ourselves, and allows us to find out the causation to make us better.

I don’t mean we should get rid of numbers totally. Besides ensuring that it is meaningful, make sure it does not make you too painful. For example, set a minimum target that you can easily reach, as too high requirement can make you give up a habit. It is because focusing less on the goals can let one achieve better results.




LifeAlvin Cheng