When All Else Fails, Lower Your Standards

When is it reasonable to change your goals?

Posted Dec 10, 2018

Writing about Brexit in the New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman cited what he called an old prescription: When all else fails, lower your standards. I had never heard this expression before, but it seems to occur frequently on the Web and even on bumper stickers. Someone might respond that lowering your standards is terrible because it violates your principles and amounts to settling for less or selling out. But sometimes, lowering your standards is a reasonable part of the general process of revising personal goals

Here are some cases where lowering standards can be a good mental strategy:

  • Perfectionists sometimes make themselves miserable by expecting to accomplish the highest possible goals in work, school, or sports
  • Some people looking for romantic relationships have an extremely rigid checklist that prospective partners must satisfy.
  • Parents sometimes have unreasonable aspirations for their children, requiring them to follow exactly in their footsteps or far surpass their own accomplishments.
  • As people age, they lose some of their physical and mental capabilities, making it difficult to maintain earlier levels of performance in work and play. 

In all of these cases, failure leads to misery, which can only be avoided if people recognize the folly of their exaggerated expectations and revise their standards to fit reality. 

Standards are goals that you hope to accomplish, but what are goals? In my new book, Brain-Mind, I argue that goals are mental representations that combine expressions of states of the world with emotions that mark those states as ones to be pursued. The relevant emotions that compose goals include wanting, desiring, craving, and longing. Brain-Mind describes how goals can be represented in the brain by patterns of neural firing.

Goals and standards are related hierarchically by the way that some goals lead to the accomplishments of others. For example, if you have the goal of becoming famous and you think that writing a great novel is a good way to accomplish this goal, then writing a novel becomes your subgoal. In turn, this subgoal can generate others such as writing a draft chapter, right down to the subgoal of writing the first sentence. Sometimes goals get revised when people realize that there are better ways of accomplishing their overall goals, for example by achieving fame through acting or politics rather than writing. 

Many sources of goals and subgoals are cultural, as in the movie Crazy Rich Asians, where there is a clash between Eastern values about family duties and Western values about personal happiness. But the variation of goals across cultures does not support the relativist view that there are no universal human goals. 

Ultimately justifiable human goals are basic needs that are universally required for living. According to the psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, there is evidence that the basic human needs are relatedness (connections to other people), autonomy (freedom to do what you want without coercion), and competence (the ability to accomplish and achieve). It is rational to revise your other goals based on the extent to which they are servicing these basic needs.

For example, being too picky about dates or too demanding towards children can destructively interfere with satisfying the need for relatedness. Being a perfectionist about work or study can get in the way of modest accomplishments that help to satisfy the need for competence.

The great cognitive scientist Herbert Simon pointed out that people can reasonably put aside unachievable goals of optimality, and instead look for satisfactory solutions in a process that he called “satisficing.” Often I prefer a different strategy that I call "exceficing," which means aiming for excellent outcomes that may not be optimal but are better than merely satisfactory. Figuring out what is optimal, excellent, and satisfactory in domains such as work, study, and relationships requires ongoing experiences of what succeeds and what doesn’t. Such experiences can include failures that are signals that it is time to lower your standards in order to better satisfy your needs. 

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