Lower Your Standards

lower your expectations

Mediocratopia: 11

Motivation, discipline, and energy are complex personality traits. While they are not immutable functions of nature or nurture, they do form fairly entrenched equilibria. Shifting these equilibria to superficially more socially desirable ones isn’t merely a matter of consuming enough hustle-porn fortune cookies or suddenly becoming a true believer in a suitably ass-kicking philosophy like stoicism or startup doerism. Life is messier than that.

You can’t exhort or philosophize your way into a new regime of personal biophysics where you magically try harder or behave with greater discipline than you ever have in your life. Gritty, driven people tend to have been that way all their lives. Easy-going slackers tend to have been that way all their lives too. People do change their hustle equilibria, but it is rare (and pretty dramatic when it happens). And the chances of backsliding into your natural energy mode are high. Driven people will find it tough to stay chilled out, and vice versa.

Emergencies and life crises can trigger both temporary and permanent changes. Type A strivers might let themselves relax for a few months after a heart attack, or make permanent changes. A slacker might find themselves in a particularly exciting project and turn into driven people for a while, and occasionally for the rest of their lives.

…the addition of stressors changes the effort/reward equation of your entire life. Old behaviors are now costlier, and the reward is possibly smaller. If you have higher energy levels, you can compensate by “trying harder” for a while. It either means marginal energy expenditure is cheaper for you than for others, or that the reward was worth more to you all along and you were just getting a big discount relative to what you were willing to pay.

But everybody has a limit past which the prevailing effort/reward equation stops making sense, but it’s not yet clear how to craft a new one. You have to buy time and energy to decide what to do. Lowering standards is one way to do that.

Lowering standards is implicitly a way to value the illegible whole of your life, over its entire indefinite future, over any narrowly legible aspect, especially one that only matters in a fixed way within a fixed time horizon.

Lowering standards is how you back off from prematurely optimizing outcomes in a particular finite game in favor of extending and enriching the infinite game.

I’ve always called this a barometer. Our bodies themselves all have one. When we work so hard that we don’t sleep enough and maintain high blood pressure over long periods, don’t exercise, and eat unhealthily, we get sick and are forced to stop working. Our minds can have them as well, which is what I think Venkatesh is describing in his post. We are organisms that require a relative amount of homeostasis.

To bring it back around to the wave of quitting in response to pandemic burnout that inspired this post, that’s a case of people intuitively, and correctly, realizing that lowering your standards of adherence to the societal script of careerism is the right thing to do when you sense an illegible toll on mental and spiritual health. Even if you don’t know quite why you’re unhappy with the current equilibrium, lowering your standards is a good idea.

I like his use of the word “illegible” in this post. Something (your body, your mind, your other self) is trying to communicate with you, but you can’t read the words. “Lowering your standards” might just mean pausing, nonaction, meditation, a walk. A clearing-away enough to start to make out those words.

That said, I’ve worked closely with quite a few successful entrepreneurs and they all seem to react to an influx of illegible writing by doubling down on work volume. There is no pause, there is only go. One of those people even had a meditation practice for a while and could be very spiritually connected and empathetic, but if the business hit a rough spot one week he didn’t respond by pondering the reasons or the second-order effects of his next actions, he just sprang into 12-hour days. He’s now independently wealthy.

Will he shuffle off this mortal coil via a mid-life cardiac event as his forebears did? Maybe. Maybe I will, drug down by all the substances, prescribed or otherwise, that I’ve found necessary to maintain this fragile equilibrium for myself.

There’s a third way, one most people don’t like the sound of. That is trust in something Wholly Other, what old people call “faith” (except “faith” has been divorced from is use in this context, as it is more typically used to mean “belief that my way of understanding the world is correct”). I haven’t nailed this way down (at all), but I’m working on it. Sometimes, with some hindsight, I can see how the times when I did not trust were not so catastrophic after all, I can see that my way of understanding the world was incorrect in an ok way. I saw ice where there was water. I chose the wrong implement to move it, but it was still the same matter.

Act, don’t act. Do, don’t do. If the universe requires a tornado, and you aren’t that butterfly, it can find another one in plenty of time.