An artist hangs two pictures in a gallery. Both are precisely the same dimensions. One he prices at $500, the other he prices at $400. His reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the paintings’ size, frames, or the amount of paint expended on either. He simply likes one better than the other. Technically, numerically, one painting is worth less than the other.

When I was a boy I was called a bad loser, and I was. For the game to be fun it had to mean something, and for the game to mean something the ending had to mean something. But the end was where the world was divided in two, into those who had won and those who had lost. Why would the winning matter unless the loser lacked what the winner had gained in victory? By this math, was not the loser worth less than the winner?

It was easy to call my howls of loser’s pain tantrums, but they were the expression of my first attempts to align myself to that with which no one can be aligned. If it were possible that I could be worth in even one penny less than another human being, then happiness itself—a thing without shape or country but more valuable than gold or seaside property—could be incrementally denied me. In this way, if you are worth one penny less, and if that one penny is the difference between happiness and unhappiness, you might as well be worthless.

I do not consider it an interesting semantic trick that for humans “worth less” became “worthless,” that relative value became no value. Though we measure and measure and measure ourselves, though we rank ourselves, compete against ourselves, judge ourselves, our actual value is an all-or-nothing equation. It defies the laws of the physical world, but so it was meant to be. We can hang price tags on all the paintings we want, but if looking at that painting does not make us happy, it is, to us, worthless.

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Measurable Value

In a writing class I took once, the instructor began the course with what I have always thought was a wise perspective: If just one person in the class gets what you have done, your work was a success.

With twenty or so students in the class this may seem like a paltry ratio, but true success is not a numbers game. After all, success is such a shifty, intellectual concept to begin with. Until we say, “I will be successful if I get an agent;” or, “I will be successful if I publish a book;” or, “I will be successful if I sell 200,000 copies of my book,” success simply doesn’t exist. It is a line we imagine in the sand that we decide, sometimes arbitrarily, that we must cross. The sand is real, we are real, but the line exists entirely in our imaginations. Despite that, whether we can cross this imaginary line becomes the metric against which we measure our current value.

So if we fail to do what we imagine we should, we are no good; if we succeed in doing what we imagine we should, we are good.  You can spend your whole life measuring what you are worth. You can measure yourself by your bank account, by the years you’ve been married, by how many Facebook friends you have. But you would never measure your worth unless you suspected on some level that who you were and what you were doing was perhaps not worth much at all.

You can never know and understand the value of anything you do. No work of art, no marriage, no symphony sprang fully formed from nothing. Everything grows from what was planted before it. The sentence you delete from your story today still lives in the recesses of your imagination and may return in ten years to end a novel you have not even begun to imagine. Judge what you are doing or have done as having no value and you deplete the well of fuel required to propel what you will some day attempt.

Here it is: Your value is, without exaggeration and quite literally, beyond measure. Trying to measure the value of anything you will do is like trying to predict the total of a hundred dice cast simultaneously. So forget it, and measure instead what is known to you. All that you can ever know is what you like and do not like, and everything you do not like pushes you back toward what you do like, and everything you do like points you to yet another thing you may love. That is the true value in everywhere you are and everything you do.

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