The year I turned 40, I began a self study, tracking events, behaviors, and occurrences for 365 days. This experiment inspired Project 40 – my life in numbers and stories.

[Continued from Part 1]

You can hardly wipe the spittle from your pillow on a given morning without being hit with a statistic. Turn on the news and ruin your day hearing word that commutes to work have quadrupled in length this decade; wages are down by 19%, inflation is at an all-time high. Glance at the paper and find there were twice as many violent crimes in the last three months than there were in the entire previous year. Before you’ve gotten yourself down the hall and to the bathroom for a tinkle, your Twitter feed tells you a record 13.6 million watched last night’s award show or sporting event. If you’ve got a hankering to look up goings on, there’s no shortage of data to be found. Right this second, 33.2 million Americans are eating. In a typical year, vending machines topple over and kill about 13 people making them deadlier than sharks. If LeBron James is to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record in an equal number of games played, he’ll have to score an average of 20.16 points per game over his next 573 games, a feat which, without considering other factors like potential injuries or aging should be doable with his current career point-per-game average at 27.19.[1] Sales are down 37%. Home purchases stagnant. 10 million hits, 200,000 spectators, half a billion in sales.

At around 5:00 p.m. each weekday, I receive by email a progress report with my youngest child’s grades, late assignments, tardies. If the balance on her meal account is low, I’m alerted. A robo-call will let me know if she’s ever foolish enough to skip a class (without figuring out a way to not get caught). The article A Day in the Life of a Data Mined Kid by NPR Marketplace’s Adriene Hill noted that my daughter’s generation is the most studied yet, with data collected on them from the moment they step onto the school bus (perhaps swiping their ID card as they board) to selections they make in the school cafeteria. It can be overwhelming. Numbers are helpful but when there are so many of them, they’re easy to ignore. Most useful are they when coupled with non-numbered data – that qualitative stuff that offers context, meaning, significance. These pieces of data, when parceled out, folded together, flipped, smoothed, puffed up and lathered can influence, beg, torment, teach, reveal, thrill, bore, and suggest. Mislead. At their best, statistics empower decisions, give us hope, add quality.

I too get a regular report about myself but mine is much more subjective, very specific, and only done annually: my performance evaluation, a drab summary of my work activities that has never told me anything I didn’t already know. Some things are hard to study about self. Still, numbers, data, figures – whether useful, pointless, inane, or frightening – are inescapable.

Data gives us insight, but only if it’s compiled and analyzed and studied. I’ve always been a numbers person. My math score boosted my SAT high enough for UCLA to admit me; and there, I finished my stats class with a 95% or so, a course feared, postponed, re-taken by some. In grad school and later on the job, I swam in data, trying to understand teenage condom use (or lack of it), the frantic behaviors of Los Angelenos during earthquakes, the proportion of schoolchildren choosing low or non-fat milk over Vitamin D. The work always revolved around other people, though. How wonderful it would be, I often thought, to flip around the clipboard and survey myself; to try to figure me out in some way.

It would be nice instead (for those of us who’d like this information) if personal stats were cranked out daily, mechanically. My Apple watch does this for me – tells me how many steps I’ve taken on a particular day. The miles I’ve walked, calories burned. My FitBit told me the hours of good sleep I got each night. And there’s other personal data available at the ready for those who care to look. Facebook friends, checking account balances, weight. What I wanted to learn more about, however, were bits less tangible. How stirring it might be to receive, for instance, an automated summary at the end of my day noting how many lies – white and otherwise – I’d told. Or get a report listing situations where lying proved most advantageous or useful, helping me be a more efficient fibber – a good thing as I’d be apt to lie less – only when truly needed. Even without a deeper analysis, with this figure, maybe I’d try my best to be a little more honest the next day. Or if my daily log told me how often I was late; a list of colleagues to whom I smiled or offered a hello to in the hallway who didn’t return the favor. A daily tally of my mispronunciations, my giggles, my arguments.

Once I finished the year, my documentation got no love for many months, paperwork kept stowed away in my nightstand drawer. My completed forms had thickened to a stack of about half a ream of paper, and stayed folded and banded together as my 42nd year hastened by. My priority in the meantime had become my novel, one I’d written and submitted and edited to death, waiting and waiting as nothing moved. And I’d remind myself about that statistic project thing I did – with all that work, I’d have to show it some respect. At very least, I might squeeze out a few blog posts. A good year passed before I cared to look at the numbers, to begin some sort of aggregation of the data. So when I finally dusted off my tally sheets and started the analysis, the review, what a wonderful and cathartic time it was, revisiting the recent past in such a rich way, finally having the summary of myself that before I’d only conjectured. Yet still, it was overwhelming. I could write about it, yes, but the result would surely be a dry report full of spat out numbers that, without much context or comparison, would mean little.

It wasn’t until I turned 43 that I picked up my pages once again – a cursory glance over the numbers one weekend, slowly picking up on patterns, finding the big numbers, the small, the zeroes. I honed in on both the broad and the specific, able to paint scenes in my head had that I’d let loose; and these scenes then reminded me of other episodes and events from years and years before. Incidents I’d forgotten and re-forgotten. And that’s when it made sense to me, that I might use this deep investigation to relive and revisit myself. To find how the 40-year-old me connected to me at 10, at me in high school or even just a few years back to my late 30s. So rather than the focus solely being my 41st year, the spotlight brightened, projecting back and showing me how far I’d come, indicating perhaps why it was no surprise that I only made three new friends over my 41st year. The ones I have I hold dear, but my track record with new relationships isn’t stellar. And this number – three – made me contemplate why.

Other numbers, too, struck me in some ways. Like observance of the 122 times I wore jeans had me recall how I’d split the back of my pants while mid-stair in the company of work colleagues and two commercial real estate agents I’d just met. Or seeing note of the seven apologies I gave hearkened me back to young love, when I’d stay on the phone for ungodly amounts of time, pleading with boyfriends about how sorry I was for whatever I’d done (having small boobs, thin hair, an unwavering determination not to pass second base) to make them break up with me. Enlightenment arrived for me in many forms, with lessons learned and new goals for myself and the beholding of so many moments in my life as dear, as precious enough to jot down.

One particular pair of variables got my attention.

  • Number of times pledged to do something: 43
  • Number of times didn’t follow through: 28

Which meant the likelihood of me making something interesting (or at least finishing an attempt to do so) held strongly at 34.9%. So the real test lied in me bringing Project 40 to a close by sharing my stories, my process, my madness. And that meant writing. So, I got to writing. And even if no one but the epidemiologist read it, it became something I had to do. Perhaps it meant fewer restaurant reviews and even fewer book club meetings, and less running, but I didn’t want to look back in another year, another four, another ten and still be suffering from my illness, thinking about what I might have done with all that information I collected, losing touch with it the further time drifted away from that year. Perhaps I’ll never get a novel published. Maybe I’ll never walk any sort of red carpet. But at least if I get this project done, perhaps I’ll have a better understanding about why.

Baseline Data – Diane Marie Brown

Age: 40 years, 0 days
Sex: Female
Weight: 124 lbs
Height: 5’2”
Cash in wallet $7

[1] It’s impossible to watch a sporting event without one of these little factoids. Behind every number-quoting sportscaster is a data geek with a cup of black coffee and no less than 17 spreadsheets being analyzed by six software platforms up on three chalkboard-sized monitors. Also, this was written in the summer of 2016.