When it comes to selecting indicators of a young person’s favorable adjustment to adult life, many American educators and parents opt for the measurable kind—grades, class rankings, RBIs, how many extracurriculars, etc. Some like to use the binary kind, too—uses drugs or doesn’t, in National Honor Society or not, shows leadership potential or doesn’t…

Granted, to do otherwise is impractical for some (large university admission panels come to mind). But it does skew the results in favor of characteristics that are easily quantified, such as intelligence or physical prowess, or readily apparent, such as the vigorous social engagement typical of extroverts, for example.

What gets left out of the equation are a lot of other characteristics that don’t show up so much in numbers, but what may in fact be better determinants of healthy adjustment. Sometimes referred to as “soft skills” (time for new nomenclature!), these attributes include such things as communication skills, interpersonal sensitivity, perspective-taking, insightfulness, an ability to manage one’s strong emotions, and a tolerance for the unknown or yet unanswered.

Not everyone values these other, more qualitative dimensions of personality and I get that; I understand that there are places where they are not adaptive and may even be disadvantageous. But here’s what I worry about: that in our society’s pursuit of expediency, the criteria for entry into institutions of higher learning as well as positions of public influence will remain limited to a narrow set of quantifiable variables in what is inarguably an efficient, though not particularly discerning, process.

Numbers will never be able to tell our stories. And stories are what remind us and tell others who we are.

“Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?” They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him.
from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Without our stories we can all look alike, at least on paper. Even something like “having good leadership skills” leaves a lot to the imagination. After all, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi were all considered great leaders, but none of them is anything like the others.

— Janet Sasson Edgette