Where The Bar is Set

I have a rule for myself that I have to shut my computer off at midnight every day. I allow myself to stay up until three, which means that after cleaning the RV and scratching a bit on the violin, I have two hours and change to read. So I read a lot of books. Usually I read non-fiction, but after a spell of three or four books about the brain, I wanted to read some fiction. With no particular title in mind, I went to Amazon and bought a book that was then the #1 editor’s choice and a NY Times Bestseller. With both awards, it must be pretty good, I thought.

The idea for the book was interesting, but the actual plot was poorly constructed. The foreshadowing was so obvious that I couldn’t help but hope that it was a red herring and that the actual twist at the end would be something more interesting. It wasn’t. Worse, the author made so many amateur writing mistakes that I actually found it hard to read (things like using a lot of adverbs and using difficult words that aren’t more descriptive than the simple ones they replace). 

It was a disaster of a book, yet it was successful and fairly well liked. I thought about how that could be possible and came to the conclusion that the bar for writing a good book probably isn’t set as high as I would assume. And, under scrutiny, that actually makes sense.

How many people would like to have a published novel with their name on it? Probably a lot. How many could come up with a decent idea for as story? Still probably a lot. How many would have the confidence that they could get a book published? We’re starting to lose a lot of people now. Of those with the confidence, how many have the free time to sit down and write 70,000 words? Not too many.  Out of those we have left, how many also have the discipline to power through writing that much and resolving the problems that crop up during the process? Almost no one. That’s how a fairly poor writer (in terms of writers, not in terms of all people) can publish a very successful book. The bar just isn’t set that high.

For a totally different example, look at how our society eats. Eat a granola bar globbed with sugar and you’re eating “healthy” because you didn’t eat a full on candy bar. Did you get a ranch-smothered salad with your pasta alfredo? Good job, healthy eater.  People eat such trash as a matter of habit, that the slightest deviation from that diet seems like a real accomplishment. The bar is set low.

Work is another great example. Forget about a four hour workweek– If you have work that’s important to you that you’re trying to complete, I think that a forty hour workweek is a joke. I NEVER go a day without doing some work, including weekends and holidays, and usually work for between eighty and a hundred hours every week. The funny thing is– I’m actually trying to push myself harder because I think that even this amount of work is slacking a bit. 

A low bar is a dangerous thing, because our expectations have a tendency to hover around whatever standard is presented to us. There have been studies done where an item, say a toaster, is shown to two groups of people. Members of the first group are told that the toaster retails for $200, and then asked what they’d be willing to pay to take home the toaster today. The second group is told that the toaster retails for only $20, and is asked what they’d pay to buy it immediately. The $200 group is always willing to pay more. Same toaster, but a different bar.

So when we hear that forty hours of work is the right amount, we feel like we’re killing ourselves if we’re working fifty. When we’re told that “wheat bread”, which almost always has sugar and white flour in it, is healthier than white bread, we buy it and call it a day. 

This is not a good way to live. We are capable of so much and waste our potential in front of TV screens while poisoning our bodies with crap food that makes us sluggish and sick. The irony of it is that our dreams aren’t even as far away as they seem– since the bar is set low across the board, the amount of spare potential we’d have to tap into to get that novel written and published isn’t even that great. As an experiment I took two days and did very little (but still some) work on SETT to see how much of a novel I could write. I wrote 15,000 words in two days.

This doesn’t mean that we have to do everything to the point of excellence. I bought a violin and I’ll never be good at it. I don’t care enough and won’t put in the time. I use it for two minute quasi-meditative breaks from programming. Same with working out– I’d like to put in the time and effort to become stronger, but my focus is limited so I don’t put much into that. 

I believe in balance, but not the same way that it’s usually prescribed. I suggest picking one or two things where you’re going to set your bar astronomically high. For me it’s SETT and learning. I spend 10-12 hours a day working on SETT and 2-3 on learning. You could say that eating healthy is up there, too, but I’m not as strict and well-researched as some people are. 

For the rest of the things in your life, you can keep the bar low. In theory it’s a good idea to try to have everything set high, but with lack of focus it’s impossible to get anything done. Most people fantasize that they have high standards for all areas of their lives, but really have low standards for everything. It’s far better to be honest with yourself and admit that you’ll slack in many areas but completely crush one or two at a time.


I just got into Austin a couple days ago, and I can tell it’s going to be a test of my discipline. I have lots of friends here and the weather is just begging me to come outside all day. It was cool to see someone living in a Rialta right in my old spot. If that’s you, let me know…






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