How Lowering Your Standards Leads to Greatness

How Lowering Your Standards Leads to Greatness by Jen Louden

There is a famous story in the writing world that I often tell at my retreats. It goes like this: the poet Bill Stafford was known for being prolific. The poet Robert Bly once asked him,

“Bill, how do you manage to write so much?”

According to writerly legend, Stafford cocked his head and, after a thoughtful pause, said,

“I lower my standards.”

That story always gets a laugh and an appreciative sigh when I tell it because most writers – heck, most people! – oh so intimately know the feeling of high standards. You feel as if the world’s tallest skyscraper is looming right over you, cutting off all the sun, so all you can do is shiver in near darkness grasping a flimsy rope in hopes that somehow, someday, someway you will climb this massive edifice…

Perhaps a personal example would be useful. During our move to Colorado this summer, I pretty much stopped my spiritual practice. It felt awful but it also felt impossible to start again. Finally, through tiny steps and kind self-talk (e.g., sit on cushion: okay honey, that’s good for today), and a dash of grace, I found myself back in the mediation room regularly!

Then, this week, I heard this sly thought…

“You are only meditating while listening to a recording of your teacher leading you. You haven’t been meditating on your own at all.”

Whoa! A few weeks ago I was a loser because I wasn’t meditating at all, now I’m a loser because I’m enjoying meditations my teacher recorded. Excuse me?

I gave that thought a big hug. “You little rascal, trying to raise the bar on me. I get that there is always more to learn and experience in my practice, and that is such great news. An endless lifetime of learning ahead!! But that doesn’t mean I will raise the bar on myself and disregard what I have been doing and how much I am enjoying it. You’re so adorable, thinking that will motivate me.”

My funny little mind wanted to take the endless delight of future learning and turn it into something onerous, a competition of sorts. A subtle but deadly twist, especially when it comes to satisfaction in any endeavor. “Lots to learn, weeeee!” to “Not fast enough, not enough, hurry up” = “let’s go take a nap.”

Greatness – which I define as dedication, steadfast application, devotion; you can define as you like – cannot be built on a foundation of nothing, and that is what you get if you never rest in what you are doing, if you never savor what is here now: nothing.

You want to be a better writer, parent, business person? Start by savoring what you are doing.

Say to yourself often, “Cool beans, I did what I said I would do!”

From there, use the growth mindset of, “More to learn, such great news” rather than, “So much to learn, so exhausting, can’t move fast enough” or “I need to fix myself first and then I can devote myself to exploring and living my true desires.”

Lowering your standards and savoring what you are doing become a foundation to build greatness upon. For example:

  • Bill Stafford wrote so many poems. Being in action leads to more action. Deciding you can’t reach the top of that building leads to sitting on the sidewalk and crying.
  • Bill Stafford wrote so many poems. Quantity is a fantastic way to improve.
  • Lowering your standards and savoring what you did gives you a place to grow from. I am here; I want to be there. What do I need to learn next?
  • To effectively learn, you need to practice the things that stretch you, confound you, frustrate you. But it’s difficult to practice what is frustrating if you don’t have a foundation of self-trust and the ability to see what you can do now. You will be too unmotivated, think there is no point in stretching yourself toward greatness, and possibly have no idea what you need to practice because you don’t know what you can do now.

Go ahead, pick one area of your creative life and lower your standards for taking action.
What would allow you to be in consistent action?
How will you savor and celebrate?
How will you befriend your mind when it says, “Ga! Not enough!”

May you find this a way to unlock even more of your astounding greatness.



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