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Jun 16, 2009

Why You Do What You Do (And Why It Should Scare You)

When it comes to getting things done,  most people think of words like productivity, willpower, and goal setting.  But if you’re frustrated at where your life is right now and you’re having trouble pushing past the things that are holding you back, willpower isn’t the problem. Goal setting isn’t it, either.  And no amount of productivity cult-ism is going to turn your life around.

There’s something more important than that – something so important it determines whether taking action is a pleasure or a chore:  It’s the set of personal standards you hold yourself to on a daily basis.

Not willpower.  Standards.

Standards determine what you’ll settle for.

Standards drive your behavior because they’re linked to what you will and will not tolerate in life.  They actually generate that discomfort threshold - that “oh, $#!t!” emotion that finally gets you moving on something.  Look at what you tolerate in life and you’ll see where your standards are.

  • How messy does your car/house/office have to get before you can’t tolerate it anymore?  That’s your standard of cleanliness.
  • How out-of-shape can you get before you draw the line and start doing something about it?  That’s your standard of fitness.
  • How deep in debt do you have to get before you cut up your cards and take action to get out?  That’s your standard of financial solvency.

We operate like little human thermostats – we have this mental standard of “okay” that we can tolerate, and when we dip below it, we suddenly get motivated to get our ass in gear.  We feel like less of a person until we get ourselves back into that “okay” zone.

In one sense, standards are part of how we want to identify ourselves.  If we’re not living up to our own standards, we don’t feel like ourselves – and we suddenly get motivated to correct the issue.

But standards can also lock you into a personal hell.

The other side of the coin is that our standards are often based around how we want other people to identify us. And since our human desire to be accepted is so strong, we commonly set our thermostat a lot higher when other people are looking than we ever do for our own personal sense of fulfillment.

Because we’re afraid of being excluded, ridiculed, or simply thought poorly of, we jump through hoops to look good for others.  In effect, we let the fear and worry about other people’s opinions become a stronger driving force then the desire to live a life we’re happy with.

Don’t believe me?

  • How many times have you let your place stay messy for long periods of time, and finally get it clean only because people were coming over?
  • How many times have you let your physical fitness go for a long time … only to start taking care of yourself because of an upcoming reunion, or special event?
  • How many times have you altered the appearance of your home, your wardrobe, or your accumulation of “stuff,” only because your friends, neighbors, or co-workers have done it first?

The desire to not be labeled as “different” (which most people are afraid means “deficient”) is so strong that we will move heaven and earth not to be called out by someone else.

But we won’t move heaven and earth to get our lives where we want them.  You know it’s true in your life, the same way I know it’s true in mine.  Deep down, we are more likely to let other people’s opinions - real or imagined – direct our lives than we are to take the reins for ourselves.

That, my friends, is screwed up.  And it should scare you.

There’s an old saying about the definition of debt:

“Debt is spending money you don’t have to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t even like in the first place.”

So it is with your standards.  You freak out about getting the place clean for company without asking yourself, “Why don’t I keep the place this clean for myself?” or “Why the hell do I even have all of this stuff, anyway?”  You diet and work out to look good at that wedding or reunion and let yourself go to pot for the rest of the year.  You avoid taking risks, being yourself and being vulnerable because you are afraid that showing your “real” side will get you looked down on.

Again, you know it’s true in your life, the same way I know it’s true in mine. Even if you’re the most independent person on Earth, somewhere in your life you’re likely letting someone else set your standard.

It’s not fun to acknowledge this.  In fact, a big part of you will be resisting thinking about this as strongly as possible (isn’t there a link I can click to get away from this as quickly as I can?).

It’s uncomfortable because it’s true.  And as a truth, you can either pretend it’s not an issue, or you can face it and admit that as a society, we’re carefully conditioned to fear being ourselves and to take the “safe” path at all costs.

But the safe path isn’t safe at all.  Since your peace of mind – if you ever have any – is tied up in impressing others, it’s on the shakiest ground possible.  What happens when the wind changes and your best isn’t good enough in society’s eyes?  How high will you jump to get back into their good graces?  Is that how you want to live your life?

What to do when you’re ready to face the facts

If a life of slavery to society’s fickle standards isn’t very appealing to you right now, congratulations – you’re setting your own standard right now and deciding that you don’t want other people’s opinions to force you into a box any longer.

Now it’s time to re-evaluate some of the other standards in your life.  Why do you work the job you do?  Why do you wear the clothes you do?  What criteria do you use to select your friends?  Why do you look at yourself in the mirror and say _______ (insert good or bad word here)?

is it because you’ve bought into society’s definition of how you should work, look, live and operate?

Or is it because you consciously looked at your life and said “this is what I truly find fulfilling?”

For everything in your life, it’s either one or the other. Either you’re letting the world tell you what you need to be/do/have to be happy and worthwhile, or you’re setting your own standards.

Wouldn’t you rather be free to chart your own course?

The high non-existent cost of high standards

For a lot of people, all this standards-setting talk will be scary, and rightfully so.  After all, if you do what’s best for you, even if it doesn’t fit someone’s cookie-cutter idea of what life should be like, won’t you lose some friends and make some relatives mad?

Absolutely.  Because other people are just as afraid of being looked down on as you are, they’re going to panic and tell you that you should fall in line, like they are, and take the safe route.

  • When you decide to take care of your body, eat right and work out, they’ll push you to pig out like they do – and then resent you when you start trimming down as they fatten up.
  • When you decide to brown-bag lunch and save your money instead of joining them at the food court, they’ll label you as a financial loser.
  • When you decide to stop joining in on the regular gossip sessions because you know that’s not the kind of BS you want in your life, they’ll think you’re “too good for them.”
  • When you decide to push back on late work hours because you want more time with your family, they’ll say you’re not a “team player.”
  • When you decide to pour your time into improving your life rather than heading out for drinks on Fridays or spending the weekend at the big game, you’ll become one of “those people.”

So, yeah, some people will shun you. That seems like a pretty high cost – and I won’t argue that it won’t be.  But think about it this way – if these people are going to reject you because you’re taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally … then do you really want them to be major players in your life anyway? Are they really caring about what’s best for you, or are they selfishly trying to hold you down so they don’t have to face the same uncomfortable choices for themselves?

Yeah, you’ll lose some people along the way to raising your standards.  But you never really had them anyway.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Now, don’t think I’m saying you should abandon people. If friends and family put pressure on you because you’re not falling into line with their standards, don’t cut them off.  But do let them know firmly – and in no uncertain terms - that you’re a big kid now, and you can make your own decisions.  And that you can live with the consequences.

If they can’t deal with being around someone who is trying to improve their quality of life, than it’s not your problem. Yes, it will hurt.  Yes, it will open some wounds.  But reaching the end of your life with the realization that you let yourself spend your time on Earth as a puppet will hurt even more.

But it’s not all bad.  In fact, two very fulfilling things will happen as you move forward in your quest to raise your standards:

  • First, you will attract people who will accept you for who you are and be genuinely supportive of your decisions to raise the bar in your own life.  You will create your own circle of people who will actually let you be yourself (which is a rare thing in this world).
  • Second, you might pull some of your friends and family along in your wake, and inspire them to set their own standards as well.  When they see you becoming happier and more fulfilled in your own life, they may gain the courage to do the same.

Raising your standards is not easy.  It’s frightening.  It’s challenging.  It’s not something you may want to do alone.  But it is something you need to be aware of, because if you’re not consciously determining where you want your standards to be – in all things – you’re letting the world reach in and muck around with your thermostat as often as it wants.

And when it’s all said and done, that’s not where you want to be.

Every day, ask yourself this:

Am I living this way because it’s what I want, or because society is telling me it’s what I should want?

And be prepared to act on the answer.

That is all.


40 Responses to “Why You Do What You Do (And Why It Should Scare You)”

  • Jun 16, 2009 Tracy

    Thanks for writing this, it echos a lot of my thinking process over the past year or so. I remember waking up one day and thinking that the reason so many people like to see you fall on your butt is because it reinforces their decision to stay on theirs.

    You’re right about doing things to impress (not sure that’s the right word, some mixture of impress and not disgust) other people instead of working to do things for ourselves. How many of us have spent ages fixing up a house before moving and wondering why the heck we didn’t fix that hole in the wall or awful tile so that we could enjoy it, instead of others?

  • Jun 16, 2009 Deb Owen

    Damn, Dave! That’s so brilliant I have nothing to add!

    Except that you’re totally right.
    And brilliant.

    And thanks for making me think about this today!
    All the best!

    Deb Owen’s last blog post..i’m good enough, i’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit – people like me (what’s wrong with affirmations)

  • Jun 16, 2009 Charfish Charlie

    I like this one a lot, Dave. Reminds of this code of honor I read when I was a kid. I can remember NONE of it except one line which read:

    Keep your own counsel.

    Thanks for the reminder! The ball’s in our court….

  • Jun 16, 2009 Daniel Edlen

    Great great great. This along with having read Ignore Everybody yesterday is really motivating me, reminding me myself is my responsibility and to be the best human I can.

    I like the distinction between different and deficient.


    Daniel Edlen’s last blog post..Seeing Faces Is Instinct, Hearing Music Is Primal

  • Jun 16, 2009 Geek's Dream Girl

    This is so true (and scary)! I had to laugh about cleaning when people come over, because that’s pretty much the only time I clean. I’m not DIRTY, I’m just messy… but I know where everything is in the mess! There’s a method to my madness!

    I totally agree that you need to stand up for yourself and what is good for you. If that means cutting some people out of your life because they’re toxic to your well-being, then you need to do that. I made the very difficult decision several years ago to cut my mother out of my life. She’s a very angry person and she did a lot of damage psychologically to my brother and myself.

    I thought moving across the country would help, but it turns out she’s just as abusive on the phone, so I limit my interactions with her as much as possible. People say to me, “E, you can’t do that! She’s your MOTHER!!” That might be super in their world, but until they fully understand mine, they won’t understand why I have to keep her on the periphery of my life. Is it selfish? Only if wanting to be mentally healthy is selfish!

    You have to do what’s best for you before you can do what’s best for the world.

    Geek’s Dream Girl’s last blog post..Geeks Can Cook: Chicken & Veggie Chili Soup

  • Jun 16, 2009 Mary Anne Fisher

    You totally nailed it. This is very timely for me as I’m currently making some pretty big transitions myself. It isn’t easy, but I’ve never felt better about myself or my life.

    Standards equate to values and priorities. It all boils down to answering two hard questions:

    1. What do you really want?

    2. What are you willing to do or be — or stop doing or being — in order to get/have it?

    The first one is by far the hardest to answer because of the fears and societal / peer pressures you mentioned. Drilling down to and accepting the “real” you and your truest desires and aspirations is the pulse point of meaningful change.

    Excellent, rousing commentary. Thanks, Dave.

    Mary Anne Fisher’s last blog post..How Doing, Being and Having More Could Be Screwing Up Your Life

  • Jun 16, 2009 Jeff Sarris

    Such a powerful post. It’s so true because no matter what you do in life there will always be doubters and naysayers who don’t want to see you stray from the norm, but those among us who can selectively ignore those outside influencers are the ones who truly succeed.

    Jeff Sarris’s last blog post..Keeping Track of Ideas With Gmail for Mobile

  • Jun 16, 2009 Srinivas Rao

    That was awesome. Of all your blog posts I’ve read since I started reading your blog, that one trumped the rest. I couldn’t agree more that having our own standards is key.

  • Jun 16, 2009 Dave Navarro

    @Tracy –
    It’s funny how we let things go in our own lives. I’m trying to become more conscious of that every day. It starts with the little thing (a messy car, showing up 10 minutes late) and works up to bigger things …

    @Deb Owen –
    That’s a hell of a comment – thanks for the kind words :-)

    @Charfish Charlie –
    Spot on. Hear what others are saying, but ask yourself if what you’re hearing is the right thing. Only you can decide.

    @Daniel -
    Glad to help.

    @Geek’s Dream Girl –
    “You have to do what’s best for you before you can do what’s best for the world” is exactly right. It’s like those airplane safety cards, where you put the oxygen mask over yourself first, then you’re free to help others with theirs.

    @Mary Anne Fisher –
    Glad you liked. It’s not easy doing what you believe in, but it’s 100% necessary.

    @Srinivas Rao -
    Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad you liked the post.

  • Jun 16, 2009 Willie Hewes

    Nice one, makes me think. But doesn’t this also mean that sometimes you need to *lower* your standards?

    I clean for company, and I’m not afraid to plead guilty to that. You say “Why don’t I keep the place this clean for myself?” but surely another way around this would be “I don’t mind the mess, so why should my visitors?”.

    Perhaps a better example is weight control. I decided this January to NOT put ‘losing weight’ on the resolutions list. Sure, I could do with losing some, but I actually have more important things to worry about, and stressing out about my diet is draining my energy.

    Do you see what I’m saying?

  • Jun 16, 2009 Dave Navarro

    @Willie –
    Excellent point and I would agree – except I wouldn’t think of it as “lowering” your standards. You’re choosing to focus on something more important to you, rather than letting other people’s opinions force you to act a certain way.

    If you don’t mind the mess, then deciding that you’re going to only hang with people who won’t judge you for it is having a very high standard indeed. :-)

    I have 3 kids, so my place is always in some state of kid-induced-tornado-madness. There’s only so clean I can get it – and the type of people who would think less of me for the mess are not the kind of people I want to invite over anyway.

    The whole idea is choosing your standards yourself out of *desire* rather than *fear.*

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Jun 16, 2009 Gina

    Great insight. Especially about what we hold ourselves to. I’ve often thought that it’s not that we get what we deserve in life, but we deserve what we’re willing to settle for.

    I’m definitely going to chew on this a while, and ask myself that question.

    I think I may also be ripping off your RSS feed line.. :)

  • Jun 16, 2009 JJ Jalopy

    This knocked me off my feet. What a kickass post.

    I have very little to add, other than my appreciation.

    I think we all deserve it to ourselves to give our “standards” the benefit of a second look to see if they were really ours in the first place.

    This made me think so much it hurt. In a good way.

    JJ Jalopy’s last blog post..Sleazy salespeople and their sleazy salespeople ways.

  • Jun 16, 2009 Vin - NaturalBias

    Excellent article Dave! I have always set high standards for myself and can relate very well to the resistance from others that you referred to. I frequently get comments about the healthy lifestyle I live, although I think it comes more from people not understanding it rather than wanting to drag me down with them.

    To be able to set high standards for yourself, I think it’s essential to know your values and passions well, otherwise there will be little motivation to live up to the standards that you set. Like most people, I sometimes care too much about what others think, but as I get older and get a better grasp on my values, I care much less about the potential for meaningless negative opinions. I’d much rather be true to myself and be left with only 1 friend who respects me than compromise my values and conform to the opinions of others to be liked by many. Without values and standards, being proud of who you are becomes a challenge, and without that, what worth is there in being liked by others?

    Vin – NaturalBias’s last blog post..The Deception and Danger of Grain Based Foods

  • Jun 16, 2009 Charlotte Mason

    Unbelievable – nothing like the truth slapped in your face. Brilliant. Dunno how I stumbled on your site today – but I did – and its just what I have been looking for. This tells people to take ownership for the situation they are in and be grateful while you are healthy cause then you have absolutely no excuse to do something about it. I have a friend who has stage 4 bone cancer, single mother ( husband selfishly OD’d cause he could not deal with life ) and 2 daugters – she has an excuse – I ( and so many others that got ourselves into our financial holes ) on the other hand – have absolutely no excuse – can get up every morning and make a difference.
    What a great stumble I made today!

  • Jun 16, 2009 Nathalie Lussier

    I’ve found this to be SO TRUE when it comes to changing your diet, especially for something kind of drastic like raw foods.

    I just need to practice it a little bit more in terms of setting standards for myself in other areas of my life. Gossip is one I’m constantly trying to avoid, so that really hit home for me.

    Great great article Dave!

    Nathalie Lussier’s last blog post..President Obama’s Call for Caring Healthcare and Taking Responsibility

  • Jun 17, 2009 Michelle - Social Media Consultant


    You are speaking right to me, and for that I want to HUG you and PUNCH you. But no violence I promise. Really kicks ass and I appreciate clearly hearing that I need a standards check. I can’t wait to read more of your book. I work with clients every day who often struggle to put one step in front of another when its time to grow their business. You can bet your sweet behind they are all getting a copy of this blog post.

    Keep up the great work my friend.

    Dave Navarro You Do ROCK!

    Michelle – Social Media Consultant’s last blog post..MC Hammer at TWTRCON

  • Jun 17, 2009 Milo

    Excellent post. As someone who is just about to plan a wedding and who also comes from a background of heavy drinking having lived in Ireland and now Scotland, this really applies to my situation as in both cases external pressure can lead you to do things you’d rather not do or would be perfectly happy without doing.

    Milo’s last blog post..Weekly Web Trawl – NYC, iPhone 3.0/3GS, Wired UK, Cheesecake, More Malcy

  • Jun 17, 2009 Amanda

    I’d say this was your meatiest post yet – loved it! You really got me thinking about how my personal standards for things in my life have evolved over the years. For example, back when I lived with friends in university, I saw no problem with doing the bare minimum of cleaning (which my roommates probably weren’t very happy about). Now I look back and feel so ashamed of my lack of contribution! I would never DREAM of making my current roommate (i.e. my boyfriend) do all the cleaning while I kick back and relax – how inconsiderate!

    So, yeah. I think your standards are very closely tied to your growth as a person, whether it’s lowering some that are unrealistic or raising some that were once embarrassingly low. ;)

    Amanda’s last blog post..Some colour for a rainy day

  • Jun 17, 2009 Kate

    I completely agree! Great post – I don’t think I have seen or heard this perspective before, and yet it now seems so very obvious! Thanks for the mirror, very very helpful right now as I am yet another on the fence, fighting the conventional ‘work for a good, safe company’ and really want to be on my own.

    I have found there is a very fine line between doing an action because someone wants you to and doing an action because you are motivated by the potential results. A lot of times it’s hard to tell the difference!

  • Jun 17, 2009 jennifer blanchard

    Wow, Dave. Thank you SO much for this post! You pretty much validated all the thinking I’ve been doing lately about making my life better. I always have been and always will be a firm believer that people should do what’s right for them–regardless of what other people think.

    Almost all of my friends have gotten married recently, and so now everyone keeps asking me, “When’s it gonna be your turn?” Like getting married is some club my boyfriend and I have to join or we’ll be outcasts.

    I’m sick of “keeping up with the Jones’.” I’m tired of putting so much pressure on myself to live up to society’s standards of how things “should” be.

    I think life should be whatever I want it to be. And from now on, it will be.

    jennifer blanchard’s last blog post..Writing Exercises Can Get You in a Writing State-of-Mind

  • Jun 18, 2009 Andrew Blanda

    Brilliant post :-)

    Andrew Blanda’s last blog post..My 2009 Goals

  • Jun 20, 2009 Arp

    Bravo for an excellent, truthful post. People do not realize how much of their decision-making is based on external things that are not meaningful to their lives. I can’t blame them, since people are guided away from learning about & being themselves.

    Arp’s last blog post..Nursing in Public as an Immigrant

  • Jun 21, 2009 Robin

    An excellent post – brings to mind a lot of thoughts I’ve had recently – “How do I change my ways? How do I become more productive?”. I’ve always tried to live not by other people’s standards, but by my own, but it’s a difficult thing to do. I might print out your article and stick it on my wall :)

  • Jun 22, 2009 David Walsh

    Absolutely extraordinary and refreshing perspective on what, at first glance, I was prepared to ignore as yet another “get your goals straight” piece. Living on self-set standards, and being wholly inner-directed, is quite possibly the most drastic, far-reaching change you can make — and as you said, there’s no cost other than the ego-check required to admit who we’re actually living to satisfy at present.


  • Jun 27, 2009 Stephen - Rat Race Trap

    Hands down one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. This pretty much sums it up for me:

    “But think about it this way – if these people are going to reject you because you’re taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally … then do you really want them to be major players in your life anyway? Are they really caring about what’s best for you, or are they selfishly trying to hold you down so they don’t have to face the same uncomfortable choices for themselves?”

    Stephen – Rat Race Trap’s last blog post..Get High on Life With Enthusiasm

  • Jun 28, 2009 Yes, But Still...

    Excellent post! Superbly written, and I look forward to sharing it with everyone I know.

  • Jul 4, 2009 capriliz

    These are things that I have been evaluating in my life recently – my standards and limits. Definitely time to change some of those “standards”. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

    capriliz’s last blog post..Wood Stove Inserts: 7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Fireplace

  • Jul 25, 2009 Brian Foley

    This is so right on. Your stuff is about the best and most useful I’ve ever read. I will be promoting you on my website.
    Brian (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at )
    Brian Foley´s last blog ..Monsoon Season My ComLuv Profile

  • Oct 1, 2009 Mitch

    Thank you, very interesting.
    This straightforward approach is exactly what i need for whats going on in my life right now.

  • Oct 20, 2009 Mark

    Been setting my own standards for years. I’m happy as fuck. I’m 19. Nice article.

  • May 10, 2010 Adam King

    We make decisions from either a place of fear or a place of love. Keep that in mind each time you face a choice in lifestyle.

    Great post, Dave. Very powerful and convicting words. Thank you.
    Adam King´s last blog ..I’m moving and you’re coming with me. My ComLuv Profile

  • May 15, 2010 Body Combat DVD

    Kudos for posting this page. I am decidedly frustrated with struggling to look for out pertinent and intelligent commentary on this issue. Everybody today goes to the very far extremes to either drive household their viewpoint that possibly: everyone else in the planet is wrong, or two that everyone but them does not really understand the situation. Many appreciation for your concise, pertinent insight.

  • May 17, 2010 Mirko Gosch

    I find this a scary yet definitely powerful and inspiring post and you really hit something I can relate to from deep within. Raising my very own standard is probably the biggest thing next to having a mentor to kick myself in the butt, make me stay focused on a proven system and remind me constantly to raise my very own standard.

    Thanks for sharing this nugget.

    Mirko Gosch´s last blog ..5 Video Marketing Secrets by Elizabeth Potts Weinstein My ComLuv Profile

  • Aug 24, 2010 Tosi

    I just wanted to thank you. It’s a fact that we always do the things we do to seem pleasing in the eyes of others.

    It’s an eye opening post that really makes one think.

    Keep up the good work bro. From this day I will be your loyal reader.
    Tosi´s last blog ..Vitamina Qe Parandalon Kancerin My ComLuv Profile

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