In the current startup environment, “vanity metrics” refer to tracking things that “make you feel good, but don’t offer clear guidance.” But the human propensity towards vanity – things or pursuits that are “worthless, trivial, or pointless” – is pretty much timeless. The definitive take came from Solomon, who took quite a bit of time to discuss the Vanity of vanities (for us English-speakers, “a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness”). In a modern webby context, think page views vs. conversions.
Examples abound of people thinking that what they do really matters, when it really doesn’t. I know of startup accelerators who spend more time on PR and marketing than with their own teams (presumably the reason they exist). I know of so many startup people who attend every startup mixer and event but I’m hard-pressed to describe what value they are actually creating. Even in causes as noble as human rights, I learned this week that there are some organizations generating all kinds of marketing campaigns and attending all kinds of events which lead to pretty much zero changes in actual lives.
No surprise this simply echoes what has also been around since Solomon’s time (relatively), when the prophets lamented the false religion of going through the motions which appear righteous but lead to no real justice or positive change in the world. Isaiah and Jesus paraphrased this as “honoring with lips but with a heart far away.”
The last thing I want to do is activity that appears valuable but simply isn’t. Whether in business or any other area of our lives, may we have the humility and awareness to avoid a life of vanity and instead be grounded in what is truly real, important and effective.