“If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower.” We were setting up for a day-long meeting and debating whether the nearest cafe was close enough to give us time to grab breakfast. One guy rejected the coffee at the event, saying he didn’t want to lower his standards. I responded in the manner above. We made eye contact, burst into simultaneous laughter, and instantly became friends.
I don’t even drink coffee.
The reason my new friend and I connected was that when you share a philosophy, it often takes only one sentence or one behavior to make that connection. A lot of people signal this sort of thing through their clothing, which is of course why they wear it. (Otherwise, wouldn’t jumpsuits, togas, or Star Trek-type uniforms be so much more convenient?)
Context says a lot all by itself. Here I am at seven AM on a Saturday, an hour before this day-long event, with maybe a half-dozen other lost souls. My very presence says a series of things about my commitment, interest level, ability to be organized, and willingness to volunteer for thankless tasks. Add in my wardrobe choices, facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, and mannerisms. You can’t tell everything about me, but you have a lot to go on. Maybe you don’t have enough information to figure out biographical details like whether I have kids or what kind of car I drive. You do know a few things, though, about my values and my behavior.
I was blind to all of this as a young person. When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how different my career path might have been if I’d understood at twenty what is now so obvious at forty-plus.
At that age, I would have been seriously offended by the implication that I had low standards.
As the Future Version of that callow youth, I can only laugh. Young Me DID have lower standards in all sorts of ways. Young Me was a terrible cook, for instance. Young Me accepted dead-end, low-paying jobs when she could have gone for more. Young Me neglected to advocate for herself in obvious situations when she could easily have negotiated better. Young Me tolerated shabby treatment from friends, coworkers, bosses, and boyfriends. Young Me wound up taking jobs, renting rooms, giving door keys to roommates, signing contracts, and doing favors for friends in situations that Today Me would never consider for five minutes.
Not only did Young Me have no clue how to negotiate, Young Me also had no idea how she constantly demonstrated that she was not a “first in line” first-choice kind of person.
Waiting by the phone for calls from a selfish, inconsiderate young man when we both should have known better.
Accepting the first offer from the first employer who called, with the first wage they suggested.
Being there, over and over, for friends who vanished rather than reciprocate.
Tolerating bad behavior, like stealing my laundry quarters or bouncing rent checks, not knowing what to do other than feel hurt.
Young Me saw a lot of specific incidents as misfortunes, rather than as indicators of an untrustworthy person or red flags for obvious behavior patterns. It took a lot of disappointment and a few very nasty surprises to start developing some street smarts and setting better boundaries. Today Me knows to ask more questions in the first five minutes.
Today Me still does favors for people, although usually they are different kinds of favors. Today Me gets asked to be a reference or review resumes for job-hunting friends. Today Me evaluates a lot of speeches and holds a lot of volunteer offices and staff positions. Today Me will still visit people in the hospital, help people move, pet-sit, or occasionally slip someone a secret envelope if they’re having cash problems. Having higher standards and better boundaries does not mean being more selfish, cold, or unkind. It means being more discriminating, offering help where it can make a real difference. Feeling taken advantage of can only happen if you have certain expectations or if you come from a position of scarcity. Offering a gift of time, energy, or resources comes from a place of love, and that means no strings.
There are, of course, many other areas where Today Me has higher standards. Young Me was a walking disaster in some ways, chronically disorganized, constantly late everywhere, and helplessly lost in the professional wardrobe category. These are not moral issues and they are not character issues. It still feels unfair sometimes to be judged by what are really superficial traits. They are, though, extremely potent signals that show whether someone is operating in the same system or not. I always believed myself to have a strong work ethic, to be committed and dedicated, bright and sincere. In some ways, it’s convenient to have ways to demonstrate that visually, just by walking in the door at 7 AM on a Saturday and making a single comment.
If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower, whether that’s your standard for how you behave, how you speak, what you believe is an acceptable work product, how you treat others or how you allow them to treat you. It’s also true that if you raise your standards, then your standards are higher. This is how you can personally contribute to a better world. If you raise your standards, you can improve your own behavior, speak kindly, influence and inspire others, create amazing, beautiful, and useful things, set the tone at an event, and ultimately contribute to the culture of a community or organization, however small. How you do one thing may actually be how you do everything. It’s an interesting project to see how raising your standards in even one area may affect everything else in your life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.