When Your Standards Are Too High (and When They’re Not High Enough)

Mark ReaganHappiness, Performance, Stress Management0 Comments

How to tell your standards are too high

Each week I have a call with my accountability partner. We give updates on our current projects and goals, and talk about any obstacles we run into.

This past call, we ended up talking about standards.

In this case, we talked about standards being too high to the point they can hold us back, cause unnecessary stress, and even stop us from trying at all.

The Curse of Too High Standards

Standards can be a great thing as I’ll write about below.

But sometimes they keep us completely stuck or run us ragged.

Here’s one of the “too high” standards that’s all too common:

Everything I do has to be perfect.

If you’re performing calculations to send a person to the moon and back, then yes, that should probably be perfect.

But most of the time, that’s not the case, and it often keeps us from trying new things.

When I taught Salsa, I talked to plenty of people who refused to learn or get out on the dance floor because they didn’t want to “to look foolish.”

Or they would try one time, do badly (because it’s their first time), and quit.

What other choice did they have? “Being perfect” says you can’t make any mistakes… but if you’re going to learn something new, you have to.

Our mistakes and failures can be our best teachers… but only if we let them. If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, it’s very, very hard to improve. And for most people, that means not trying at all.

When it Goes the Other Way

Perfectionism can go the other way as well, and instead of not trying, we try far too hard. This usually ends up doing two things:

1. You spend a crazy amount of time on every single project, whether it needs it or not.

2. You have to do it all yourself, because “no one can do it better” than you.

What do you think these ways of thinking do to someone’s stress levels?

It depends, actually.

If we care about a project, we’ll feel stress from that angle.

But then there’s also the other projects that we need to get to as well, and they might start piling up…

And the deadlines are looming…

And people are hounding you about when it’s going to be finished, not to mention if you’re trying to come in under budget…

Perfectionism can cause projects to back up, or have you burning the wick at both ends leaving yourself burnt out.

This might cause you to feel like you’re drowning under all the stress with no way out. It’s not a happy way to live.

Reading this, the solutions might be obvious to you.

For spending too much time on something, there’s a passage from the Tao Te Ching that talks about it:

Filling a cup to the brim
is not as good as
stopping in time.
Staying constantly sharpened
can wear out the blade.

Not every project is top priority, not every painting is a masterpiece. Spend only the amount of time that’s necessary, and sometimes “good enough” is all that’s needed.

Remember, a project that’s done is better than one that never gets finished.

For more on this, see #4 and #5 on this article about ways you unintentionally stress yourself out.

When Our Standards are Too Low

You’ve met them.

Maybe some of them are your friends.

Your co-workers.

Your family members.

It might even be… you.

Chances are you know someone who suffers from too low standards.

Their work is sloppy.

They don’t try very hard.

They give up easy to settle for being mediocre.

And in relationships? Well we all know of someone who got into a bad relationship that could’ve been avoided if they raised their standards a little.

We all have low-standards in some area of our life. There are things we enjoy doing, and things we don’t.

I don’t enjoy playing sports, so my standards for shooting some hoops are pretty low. And the standards for my guitar playing skills? Rock bottom.

If we don’t care about something, it’s hard to have high standards for it.

But if our standards are low across the board, we’re suffering from some pretty low-self esteem. I think it points to that we don’t trust ourselves either – we don’t like failing, so we’ve set the goal post so low it’s impossible to.

Why We Need Failure

We need to be able to fail.

If there’s a chance of failure, it means we’re taking a risk.

We’re going for that dream job, that dream woman or man… we’re getting out on the dance floor, whether we’ll look foolish or not.

If you worked for a company where no one could fail, it would be a low-standards hellhole where everyone gets a gold star.

That company would be filled with people who didn’t care about the outcome of their work, their customers and clients would be furious, and it probably wouldn’t be around for very long.

The possibility of failure causes stress for us, but that stress and pressure pushes us to be better than we are.

A few years ago I got hooked on the show Kitchen Nightmares.

Have you seen it?

In the show, Chef Gordon Ramsay goes into failing restaurants to turn them around. Usually, the restaurant’s standards are abysmal: food isn’t stored properly, they cook most of their food in a microwave, they don’t care if they use a meat-based broth for a vegetarian meal and so on.

It’s no wonder the restaurants are failing.

Chef Ramsay arrives to save the day, usually by forcing them to get their shit together. He makes them raise their standards.

But how do we know are standards are where they should be?

The Standards Sweet Spot

“Excellence is the bottom line.” – Gordon Ramsay

Our standards should not be locked in place. People often have one standard, and apply it to all areas of their life.

It doesn’t work.

You need to know when to use the right tool for the job, or like my girlfriend, the right shoes for the right dress.

Chef Ramsay is a good example of this. He has different standards for contestants on Hell’s Kitchen than when he’s dealing with children on Master Chef kids.

Good standards should challenge you for that area of your life.

A challenge isn’t easy to succeed at, but it’s not impossible. Something like completely perfect is impossible.

But you challenge yourself for your skill level… and if you keep doing it, over time, you become better and can take on greater challenges.

We often try to do “too much too soon,” and we create an impossible situation for ourselves. So we quit, or we get so stressed out we head toward a breakdown.

If you’re holding a paintbrush for the first time, your challenge is going to be much different than a master painter. The same goes for every area of your life – ramp it up over time.

And don’t set too high standards for others, either. If you apply the standards of a master to a beginner, you can crush them.

“Excellence” is going to be different based on each person, their skill, and the desired outcome of the situation. Based on Chef Ramsay’s quote above, we can come up with a question to help you adjust your standards.

“What does excellence mean for me in this situation?”

You might be focused on the result, but being focused on the process is just as important.

Follow it up with: “Is that achievable?”

And if you need to: “What’s going to be the effect of achieving this on myself and my environment?”

If the answer to the question is impossible, or achieving it is going to lower your quality of life long-term, hurt your relationships, etc., your standards are too high and you’re probably falling into perfectionism. 

Your answer should be something that’s not too easy, but isn’t impossible either. It needs to challenge you, to push you.

For the different areas of your life, what are your standards?

See if they’re too low or too high, and bring them into the that sweet spot.

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