Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Properties of the High Bar

08 Sep 2009

Sure, being an Indian, moving to Canada at age fifteen from a city as conservative as Dubai to a city as liberal as Vancouver was a big culture shock for me. But what awaited me in Canada was a far bigger, a far more serious and a far more undocumented shock. It is the shock of discovering you had been brainwashed for the first fifteen years of your life.

Until Grade 10, I had gone to a school that made me unconsciously surround myself with friends, classmates and teachers who all had a few simple assumptions when it came to test and exam grades. Popular belief was that 90% on a non-language exam was a mere pass, 95% was average, 99% was considered rather decent, 100% was considered noteworthy, and 105% was considered pretty darn good.

Then I moved to Canada and started interacting with a lot of people who had come from various countries around the world. The popular belief here was that 50% was a pass, 75% or thereabouts was average, 90% was considered pretty good and 100% was considered remarkable, almost impossible. Imagine my surprise.

I discussed this distinction with my Grade 10 French teacher at the time. I suspect she knew what I was talking about because the next evening she phoned my parents and asked them to find me a new school.

Never underestimate the power of setting the bar ridiculously high for yourself. You want your "good" to be other people's "excellent". In fact, you don't even want to compare yourself with others at all. Because if you do, you'll probably end up doing pretty average. Why? Because the general population naturally deviates to well, the average, by definition.

A lot of the software startups and medium-sized companies like Tagged make this mistake quite frequently of juxtaposing themselves with universally-accepted "standards". That's where they place their bar. They're pretty happy when they ship a major feature in just 2 weeks. Employees at these companies say that the same feature would've taken a high-profile company like Google and Microsoft 2 months to ship. But if you set your bar high, 2 weeks is considered outrageously slow. It really should've been only 5 days.

You see this at the Olympics every four years. The Africans always seem to perform much better at running. Why? Because they train at higher altitudes so when they actually run at the Olympic stadium close to sea level, they find it much easier. In short, their coaches set the bar high for the runners. They force the runners to forget they're actually training at high altitudes by never mentioning it. So when the runners finish a 100m sprint at 12 seconds during practice, it's considered quite crappy, and the coaches pretend they're upset, when we all know 12 seconds is actually quite a remarkable feat at that high of an altitude.

People consider Steve Jobs as the epitome of perfectionism and attention to detail. But imagine if you set Steve Jobs as your minimum standard instead. Now you've only given yourself room to do better than him.

In Fall 2007, I set 7 courses per semester to be the minimum standard for myself. Nothing less than that. Eight perhaps some day when I had the guts, but never five. Never six. I set myself a hard standard, then I went away and implemented it.

If you find something hard, force yourself to do something that is 10x times harder. I found driving in suburban Vancouver stressful and confusing until I forced myself to drive in Downtown. When I lived in San Francisco, climbing up Green and Vallejo seemed so arduous until I forced myself to climb Taylor everyday after which Green and Vallejo basically became a walk in the park.

You might already be familiar with this idea of setting yourself an incredibly high bar and then forgetting that you did so. Our neighbour used do something similar with all the clocks in his house. He'd set them all at different times that were anywhere from 10 minutes slow to 10 minutes fast from the right time. Thus, the only clock that was reliable was the fastest one which made him 10 minutes early for all his appointments. I'd imagine he never missed a bus in his life or any other appointment for that matter.

This idea of messing with yourself and then proceeding to forget that you did so is what psychologists famously call mind programming. And you can certainly program yourself to set really high bars for yourself and then forget that you did so. This will make your high bars seem rather normal to you, but will leave everyone else in your wake scratching their heads, wondering how you got to the finish line so incredibly faster than they did.

« The Cat is Out of the BagThat First Half Hour »

[ about | all posts | subscribe | resume | contact ]