A Question of Standards (#857)

I had a particularly interesting conversation with a coaching client this week. We were speaking about his ongoing sense that no matter how much progress he was making, it was still with a sense of six steps forward, five steps back. As he launched into another example of losing his bearings and getting stressed and wound up at work for the umpteenth time, it suddenly dawned on me that the problem wasn’t to do with a lack of knowledge or some inherent inability to fully grasp the import of what we were talking about – it was a question of standards.

A “standard”, as I am using the word, is an arbitrary line in the sand that determines what we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable in our world. When our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or circumstances drop below a certain standard, it automatically triggers compensatory action on our part. As long as we remain at or above our current standard for something, it receives no further attention.

In this particular client’s case, it was very clear that he had a very high standard around work ethic.  Days blended into evenings and weeks into weekends if there were still things to do on his list, and no amount of coaxing would convince him that it was OK to just not do the work if it was there to be done.

Similarly, he had an extremely high standard around customer care, which is one of the things that had always impressed me about him. Whereas someone with a lower standard might consider that if a customer wasn’t complaining, they were happy, in his world the duty of the company is to look out for the best interests of the customer no matter what. While he stopped short of trying to force the customer’s hand in a particular direction, It would simply be unacceptable that that same customer might suffer when they had their eye off the ball, even if every court in the land would place the blame and responsibility firmly in that customer’s lap.

But, I pointed out to him, he had an extremely low standard for well-being. That is, he was perfectly willing to push himself beyond the pale for weeks at a time before it would even occur to him that maybe feelings of stress and pressure followed swiftly on by bouts of overeating and drinking might be subtle or even blatant indications of a drop in his overall level of peace, contentment, and well-being.

He quickly acknowledged the point, and immediately set about looking for ways to apply his high-level work ethic to the “problem” of raising his levels of well-being. Yet after some further discussion, it became apparent to both of us that standards are not the same as goals – once set, there is absolutely nothing to be done willfully in order to bring them about.

In the same way as water seeks its level, standards act as a kind of invisible magnet, automatically filtering our attention and directing our actions in their direction. If we are trying too hard to meet our own standards, it’s simply an indication that they’re not yet set – they’re more aspirational than actual.

While this is very much an ongoing exploration, what I’ve seen so far is that our standards set and reset themselves as we grow in awareness and consciousness. In other words, once I truly see the cost of a low standard for well-being, it automatically goes up and in time, my behavior will change accordingly. Whereas once it seemed perfectly normal for me to feel stressed for weeks at a time, my stress tolerance has reduced to the point where I can’t go much more than a few minutes before I’m pulling back to let my thinking settle before moving forward with whatever it is that I’m doing.

That reduced tolerance for stress is a sign of a higher standard for well-being. And since all standards are internal and arbitrary – that is, we make up our standards for ourselves, consciously or unconsciously and independent of any external authority or measure – our standard for well-being as individuals and as a society can continue to rise over time.

With all my love,

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