Age is the ultimate vanity metric

In startups, metrics can be thought of in three categories: meaningless metrics, vanity metrics and actionable metrics. Meaningless metrics are just as the name implies, they are completely pointless. Vanity metrics might seem important at first glance, but can be easily manipulated and don’t really matter unless looked at in the greater context. Whereas, actionable metrics get to the core of evaluating if a problem is really being solved.

A screencap from In Time (2011), a film where time is literally money.

An example of a common vanity metric in startups is total registered users, as opposed to active users really using the application every day. If only 1% of users who register ever come back, then suddenly a really high total registered users count doesn’t really matter. Another good one is a percentage increase without any context. Someone might say “customers have increased 4x,” but without context this could actually mean “over this arbitrary time period of two months, we went from 10 customers to 40 customers,” which sounds far less impressive. Other classic examples touted in the press are amount of money raised and total employees hired. While at glance these might seem to indicate a startup is growing fast or getting really big and thus becoming very successful, it only tells part of the story.

As a Product Manager building features within a large enterprise application, coming up with actionable metrics instead of vanity metrics to guide what to build next or how to improve on an existing feature isn’t always the most straightforward activity, but it is something I’m constantly thinking about. It is in this context that I read the 2016 New Establishment List from Vanity Fair. The list ranks the top power players 100 people across four broad categories: Silicon Valley hotshots, Hollywood Moguls, Wall Street Titans and Culture Icons. I find the list fascinating for a variety of reasons and even in the months since it has come out, it remains very relevant.

Each person on the list has a few short blurbs written about them, anything from favorite book to how much money they are worth. The only constant for every entry is the individual’s age and rank. At glance it appears as only the young are successful (Taylor Swift: age 26, rank 18 or Palmer Luckey: age 24, rank 77), but then as I thought about it further, I realized there are plenty of examples to the opposite (Carl Icahn: age 80, rank 42 and Rupert Murdoch: age 82, rank 8). Like any good Product Manager, I figured data could help me get to the heart or my question so I wrote a quick script to scrape the data from the page and then dumped into into a spreadsheet and graphed it.

Age vs Ranking on the Vanity Fair New Establishment List

Keeping in mind correlation does not guarantee causation and this is a pretty limited dataset originally based on human input, it’s still interesting to consider the results. In this case there is a very weak relationship between a person’s age and a person’s rank on the list. A recent New York Times article also backs this up. It looks at prominent scientific breakthroughs in the context of age of the scientist and determines that while status increases with age and makes it easier for one to take risks, ultimately age doesn’t matter. What really matters is grit, determination and never giving up.

Why then, does society focus on the young successes? I suppose it makes for a good story. While it is certainly impressive that Zuckerberg built Facebook in his dorm room or Mozart composed music at age five, they didn’t do these things because of their age. More likely they possessed other characteristics which would have made them successful eventually, it was really only a matter of time. It’s important to keep in mind everyone is on their own path and it is probably best to just focus on yourself instead of using what others have accomplished by a certain age as a yardstick, because it seems that age is just another vanity metric.