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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Making up statistics

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Ken Smith
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Painting by Jim Beckner

Ken Smith has a hunch about the data.

I like to make up statistics. Let me be clear about that. I’m not talking about doing research and tallying reams of data until a few precious numbers pop up in amber on my monitor. I’m talking about just making up the numbers.

Here’s my method. If I have a hunch about something, for example, that many of our fellow citizens grow weary of their careers, then I’ll make a guess. What percentage of our neighbors drag their feet on the way to work, stare into the distance once they get there, and like a box full of old socks spark hardly any joy among customers and co-workers? And when the dog meets them at the front door in the evening, is it a fifty-fifty chance which one will snarl first? What percentage of people are living lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau called it? Who knows, but I bet we all have a hunch. How many of the folks you know sigh on Sunday evening?

Once I have my hunch, I choose a precise number. In my head I say, “In due time, 45% of Americans become disenchanted with their careers and begin the unpretty slide into a life of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation.” Then, just to be honest about my invented statistic, I’ll say to the person I’m talking to, “I like to invent statistics. You know, just make them up. Did you know that 45% of Americans dislike their joyless careers?”

Having announced my invented statistic, something interesting usually follows. Looking at the people around us in our town, the two of us might decide that 45% is a surprisingly low or surprisingly high figure. We might talk about why so many of our neighbors feel sour about their lives, and what could be done about that. All that waste of human spirit and creativity, all that gray drudgery, does it really have to be that way?

Passing by a university campus the other day, I saw a tour group making its way down the sidewalk. Easy to see what they were up to—one person was walking backwards, gesturing left and right toward the monumental architecture, projecting memorized chatter from the diaphragm so everybody could hear. Back in the tour group, high schoolers tried to decide whether it was cool or uncool to be interested in this place. Parents were tallying payments in their heads and wondering how the next few years would shape up their dear, though gangly, offspring.

Based on my latest statistics, my advice to high school seniors about college is: “Don’t argue with your parents when they say ‘Of course you’re going to college for a career.’” After all, 45% of the people on your campus tour will grow to hate their careers.

Instead, I’d like the campus tour guide to say, “Come to our campus for a few years to find magical words. Each field of study has some. Using those words, young people see things in the world that are otherwise not easy to see. The words lead to power, and they open spaces to explore. Choose a field you might be able to love, memorize its words, use them to think until they become part of you. Doing so, you’ll notice new things about adulthood and creativity and freedom and making the world a better place. And once you find the right words, there’s a 72% chance that you can turn those words into your first career.”

Ken Smith writes about algebra, bikes, con artists, donuts, exercise, failure to exercise, grandparents, harmonica, introverts, jury duty, kings of long ago, Lipitor, meteors, night fishing, Olympic athletes, peace and quiet, rattlesnakes, silly sex education, Twitter, unpaid debts to our fellow human beings, the velocity of an unladen swallow, World War II, extroverts, Young People of Today, and the South Bend Zoo.