The Quantified New Dad

The data holds that I'm a slower person, who is worse at his job. But the data doesn't know everything.
Oh, the good old days, when I could run 26 miles faster than I could run 7 now.

Last week, I returned to work after an extended paternity leave. A lingering melancholy aside, it felt pretty good. I wrote stuff, and it didn't feel like torture. It seemed like I was finding stories and making observations like I had before. I was back!

I'm also back to running. After two marathons earlier this year, I took it pretty easy in our baby's first few weeks. But I've been ramping back up. And this past weekend, I felt good. I was moving. I was back! 

But, there's a problem. I happen to have some data on my quantitative performance at work and on the streets. And the data tells a different story. Runkeeper notes that my last 5-mile run was my 60th fastest (i.e. slowest). And our analytics software tells me precisely fewer readers I'm connected with at my job.  

One could look at the charts and see at a glance that there was slippage between my perception of myself, and the measurements of myself.

Thinking about this last Friday, heaped on the couch from the exhaustion of my first full-time working parent week, I had only one thought about this data: 


But then I started to think about it. For one, half the time I'm pushing a jogging stroller. The other half, I'm running up hills and stairs trying to get more intense workouts in faster. Looking at my average mile time is a dumb way of evaluating how things are going.

And as for my work data, traffic has always only been a partial measure of my performance. (And besides, there's so much jitter in web stats that you need some months to see real patterns emerge.)

These data tell a story, sure. But it's not necessarily any more accurate than my own introspection. And perhaps the best use for the data is to cause me to explore the slippage between what can be measured and what I feel. 

In our son's early days, I was astonished at how everything seemed to revolve around a number, too: his weight. Sure, the pediatrician checked out all kinds of other things, but it was this measurement, and its position relative to the previous one, that determined How Things Were Going. If he was spitting up a lot (and he was), and he was gaining weight, it was no big deal. If he hadn't, though, it would have spelled trouble. 

Psychologically, recording a good weight gain was tremendously satisfying. Proof! Proof! We were successfully rearing this tiny gorilla. We loved the data. Maybe I loved it more than most.

At first, I plotted all this data in a spreadsheet and found the slope of the lines. I thought about the slope of the lines, and what that might say about his feeding or overall health. I shared the chart I made with his grandparents on a private photostream. 

But by our two-month appointment, I'd stopped obsessing. He was fine, or as I like to say, he is perfect. He is turning into a human who is conscious of the fact that he has hands! It makes it hard to focus on the specifics of his weekly weight gain. 

So, I'm trying to follow a similar path with myself. I'm fine, not even as sleep deprived as I'd anticipated, and I don't need the data to tell me that. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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