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.