Raise Your Standards

A piece of criticism I often get is that my standards are too high — to the point where people feel they can’t measure up.  Maybe it’s easy for a polyphasic-sleeping, vegan entrepreneur to say, “This is what you can do to improve your results,” but perhaps I’m out of touch with what the average person is capable of.  I’ve never been accused of being too average.

Part of me is amused by this — the part that remembers sitting in a jail cell for a few days, charged with grand theft when I was 19 years old (for the whole story, listen to podcast #1).  I usually wouldn’t get out of bed until around 2pm.  Much of the time a corner of my studio apartment would be stacked with stolen items waiting to be sold.

I usually drank at least once a week, although I didn’t do any other drugs, and I never smoked.  It’s fair to say that I consumed more alcohol before the age of 21 than afterwards (I’m 34 now).  My kitchen saw nary a fruit or vegetable aside from some canned soup and frozen potatoes.  My standard dinner was either a bacon double cheeseburger and fries or a pepperoni pizza.  I wasn’t overweight, but I think that was because I usually spent at least 2 hours walking or biking each day.

During the long walks I took, I imagined ways to get better at stealing.  The most effective method I ever tried was to walk into a department store, go to the housewares department (sometimes the electronics department), pick up several items, take them to the register and claim they were gifts I wanted to return.  Of course no one would give me a refund without a receipt, but certain stores would accept an exchange without raising an eyebrow, crediting me with the lowest recent sale price for each item.  As long as the cashier didn’t actually see me pick the items off the shelves, s/he had no idea I didn’t walk in with them.  And if a security camera or undercover “loss prevention” agent saw me, all they’d see is someone picking up legitimate items from the store and then go stand in line with them at the register, so I just looked like a regular customer.  After the exchange, I’d leave the store with all new items, a shopping bag, and a receipt for the exchange, so I could walk out of there with no problems.  Even the security stickers would be deactivated by the cashier.

Most of the time I did this routine with a partner.  He’d go into the store before me, scope it out for 20–30 minutes, select the best items to “return” and co-locate them in a convenient spot away from the cashier.  Then he’d leave the store and meet me somewhere to spend another 20–30 minutes briefing me.  This would include drawing a detailed map showing me the locations of every cashier, which entrance I should use, where to pick up the items, and the exact path to take to the cashier.  This way I never had to spend time browsing for the items and risk being seen empty-handed.  This scheme worked dozens of times and was particularly lucrative after Christmas, when lots of other people would be returning gifts.  I started doing exchanges worth about $200 at a time and gradually increased to $400–700 per exchange.  My best weekend was $2400.

I kept only a fraction of the items for myself, mostly a TV and lots of video games.  But most items were sold for about 70 cents on the dollar.  This is how I paid my rent.  What’s really disgusting is that at the time, I had about $20,000 in the bank (and my rent was $600/month), so I didn’t even need the money.  It became quite an addiction, and eventually I got caught when I inevitably got too greedy and overconfident.  In fact, technically I’ve been banned for life from shopping at certain stores.  Funny, eh?

These were my “high standards” when I was 19.  If I kept my standards at this level, perhaps I’d be blogging from the inside of a prison cell today, telling you how I helped Bubba increase his productivity.

What really got me out of this mess is that I made a committed decision to raise my standards.  I remember when I was released from the county jail in Sacramento, I spent a few hours walking around the State Capitol building.  I still had to go to court several months later, and the likely outcome was that I’d be spending a few years in prison.  I’d already had prior convictions where I had to do community service and got probation.  I surrendered to the inevitability of going away for a while (which miraculously never happened, as I explained in The Meaning of Life series), but I accepted that I was responsible for getting myself into this mess and that given enough time (years), I could eventually get myself out of it.  No one was coming to rescue me — it was entirely up to me.  I made the decision to steal, and I could make the decision to do something better with my life. The outlook for the next few years looked bleak, but no matter what happened in the immediate future, I could still imagine being in a better place five years hence. It might get worse before it got better, but at least it would eventually get better.

Even though my standards at the time were higher than some of the people I hung out with, that was no consolation.  So what if I was only doing shoplifting and grand theft while other people were doing worse?  Comparing myself to others was of no consolation when I got arrested.  That’s when I realized that the standards of other people were totally irrelevant.  What mattered is that I listened to my own intelligence, set my own standards, and did the best I was capable of doing.

What consolation will it be to you that you ate a better-than-average diet when you’re diagnosed with cancer?  Will you be comforted by the fact that you had a better job than your friends after pouring years of your life into unfulfilling work?  Is it OK that your marriage is a dud because most of your peers are divorced?

I recently saw the documentary Dark Days, which is about a group of homeless people living in an abandoned underground railway tunnel in New York City.  Eventually the homeless people are moved into subsidized apartments, and one of them recounted how he was amazed he let himself sink to such a low point.  Yet the footage of him during his time underground (where he lived for 5+ years) showed that he was OK with living in a rat-infested tunnel.  At any given time, our current standards seem normal and acceptable to us.  It’s only when we raise them and reach a whole new level that we look back and think, “those were some dark days.”  Is it possible you’ll someday look back on your standards of today and reflect upon them as your dark days?

Comparing yourself to other people is a waste of time.  It’s only going to get you stuck in mediocrity.  If you compare yourself to those who are much worse off than you, you’ll look like a king.  After watching Dark Days, my four-bedroom house suddenly looked like a mansion.  But if I watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that same house will look like a shack.  And if I look around at all the other homes in my neighborhood, it will look average.  This information is worthless to me.  It says nothing of what I’m actually capable of.

The only question that matters for setting your standards is this:  Are you doing your best?  If the answer is yes, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of how your results stack up against other people.  For many months of my life, not breaking the law was an ambitious achievement.  If I did nothing else but that, I could celebrate an outstanding day.  I didn’t have the discipline, the focus, or the motivation to achieve anything much more ambitious than that.  A day where I didn’t risk getting arrested was a darn good day.  I even remember feeling good about myself for breaking the habit of jaywalking.

Fast forward 15 years, and my standards are much higher now.  I’ve made tremendous progress, and in some areas of my life it’s fair to say my results easily fall into the top 1%.  This blog is among the top 0.01% in terms of traffic.  My diet is easily healthier than 99.9% of Americans.  And I’ve certainly read more books than 99% of my peers. But I don’t set my standards by the habits of others. That isn’t what I need to grow, and it isn’t what you need either.

Raising my standards required that I started noticing things that were previously below my level of awareness.  I had to first become aware of what I needed to change.  For example, I used to have no qualms about wolfing down a greasy burger.  I gave no thought whatsoever to what was involved in producing that burger, and I didn’t really want to know.  I was raised to eat burgers — it was normal for me. But as part of my personal campaign to raise my awareness, I had to look into these sorts of things.  I had to know what was going on behind the scenes in my life and think about the long-term consequences.  Not thinking about the consequences is what landed me in jail.  Learning the full consequences of my food choices and taking full responsibility for that is what led me to go vegetarian and then vegan.  I haven’t eaten one bite of animal flesh since 1993.  Negative health and environmental consequences notwithstanding, I cannot in good conscience pay people to perform hideous acts of animal abuse like slamming live chickens into walls, jumping up and down on them, and cutting off their beaks to prevent them from pecking each other to death prematurely when they go insane (see for yourself in this recent KFC video).  It makes no difference to me that more than 99% of my peers willingly pay people to abuse animals; many will drop their awareness to pretend it’s not happening.  But when I ask myself if this behavior is congruent with me doing my best, the answer is a very clear no.  Let the masses do what they will, but my personal standards will always be dictated by my own conscience.  I’m always raising the bar for myself, never lowering it.  After making sporadic donations over the past several years, this year I’ve setup a monthly pledge to donate money to help stop animal abuse.  Next year I will probably increase it to be more money and/or more charities.  That’s a far cry from the 19–year old kid who had no qualms about wolfing down a bacon double cheeseburger between heists.  If you told me back then that this is how I’d be at age 34, I’d never have believed you.

As I move forward on the path of growth, there are always periods where I slide a bit in one area while my focus is elsewhere, but the long-term trend is to continue raising my standards without limit.  I want my best to continue getting better.  I always have my eye on the next step.  When I start getting complacent, that’s when I’ll be ready to shop for a burial plot.

What if I were to ask you, “Are you doing your best?” and you honestly answer, “No, I’m not?”  Then you’ve got a problem.  You have unused potential that you’re just wasting.  You’re living below your capacity.  Probably this is because you’ve defined your current standards based on what you see in your peers or on TV.  If you’re among the fairly intelligent people reading this blog, it’s fair to say your standards for living are already well above average.  Who cares?  You’ll get no brownie points from me for that achievement.  Is that the best you can do?  Surely you’re capable of outperforming a sitcom character.  What other people are doing is irrelevant.  You know you’re capable of more, so step up and claim those results.  If you don’t want that excess capacity for yourself, then do as I’m doing and give it away to the world.  Use it to make a difference in someone else’s life.  Help other people who are average or below average reach the level you’ve achieved.  There are people in the world who would give almost anything to have what you take for granted as normal.  Why not help some of them?

Perhaps your peers will tell you you’re doing just fine.  But I’m not going to let you off so easily.  I say that if you aren’t doing your best, then you’re a loser.  I have more respect for the homeless drug addict that’s doing the very best he can to pull his life back together than for the yuppy prince who settles for socially acceptable, above-average results without breaking a sweat.

If you don’t know what you’re capable of, then take a risk and find out — and by that I mean a risk for you, not for your peers.  Let the world tell you when you’ve gone too far.  Let it knock you down and say, “This is as far as I’m willing to let you go.”  Make sure the walls you hit are made of reinforced concrete and not of your imaginary self-doubt.  Don’t be such a wuss when it comes to risk-taking.  My standard for risk-taking is, “If it won’t land me in a prison or a coffin, it’s worth doing.”

Aside from risk-taking, how else can you discover what your best is?  Follow the trail of better.  Raise your standards.  Can you perform today a little better than you did yesterday?  And can you do the same thing tomorrow and the next day?  Follow that trail, and you’ll come to discover just how incredible your best really is.  I guarantee you it’s way, way out there.  Your best is so far ahead of you that you can’t even see it yet.  It’s going to take you years before you think you’ve even gotten close to it.  And even when you think you’ve found it, you’ll discover it’s always one more step ahead of you.

The standards I had when I was 19 seemed like they were pretty good at the time.  If I stopped to compare myself to other people, I’d see that I was a lot braver than average, I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed a rich social life, and I had an easy source of cash whenever I wanted it.  In many ways my results were above average.  But of course today when I look back, those standards seem pretty pathetic.  Now my work is focused on making a positive contribution to the world instead of being a leech and a thief.  I look forward to having even higher standards another 15 years from now, such that I can look back on this moment and think to myself, “Wow, my standards were so low back then.”

The speed of the pack is so slow it’s virtually standing still.  As individuals we’re capable of racing ahead of the pack, each of us in our own unique way.  We do this by discovering our strengths and developing them to the level of genius.  We march ahead full steam and leave a trail of crushed doubts behind us.  If you follow this path, you may hear some whining from the pack now and then, warning you not to get too far ahead.  Ignore it.  The path of the pack isn’t for you.  All you need to do is look around the world and see where the path of the pack is taking us, and it isn’t pretty.  In order to meet this planet’s greatest challenges, more of us need to break formation and help get this slogging, putrefying pack moving in a more productive direction — one that leads away from abusing our bodies, our neighbors, and our planet and towards service to the highest good of all.  All it takes for evil to win is for enough people like you to settle for less than their best.  And if you’re complacent, then in my book, you’re evil.

I know I can do better, and I will.  And I know you can do better too.  Now will you do it?  And if the answer is no, then please put a white flag on your home, so I know where to hurl my tofu.