Lowering your standards
by, November 8th, 2009 at 08:30 PM (2033 Views)
In graduate school at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, a poet named Marvin Bell came up with a piece of advice that quickly spread like pink eye through the ranks of prone-to-writer's-block neurotic students like me.
When you are having trouble writing, he suggested, lower your standards.
I think this somewhat paradoxical maxim deserves a lot of serious consideration, especially by those of us prone to judging ourselves harshly. And I don't mean just in our literary endeavors, though god knows this has been one area where I have had to endlessly apply the motto.
Swimming, it seems to me, is an excellent place to use the notion of lowering ones standards. Other candidates: the pursuit of a good night's sleep; the apparent musculature of your abdominal regions; life's overall sense of happiness; health; the SAT scores of your children; and the cleanliness of your underwear.
Really, I ask you, where, in any of these areas, are you likely to go wrong by simply lowering, perhaps even abandoning altogether, your standards?
A couple before and after statements might show how helpful this cognitive restructuring can be:
Before: I must beat my swimming nemesis X by Y number of seconds in Z event, and furthermore, I must do a Personal Record best time in addition to this beat down of X.
After: X can lap me--of what concern is this of mine?
Before: I must get 8 hours of wholesome, refreshing sleep
After: Thrashing fitfully throughout the night, slipping occasionally into spells of sleep apnea so deep that I stop breathing for four minutes at a time will allow me to train hypoxically while X is sloughing off and coddling his brain with oxygen and rest.
Before: Underwear in its immaculate cleanliness should be as blindingly white as the beard of God, and, furthermore, it must be changed every five to ten minutes
After: There is nothing wrong with earth tones for garments that no one but you will ever see. Lighten up!
Before: I must be loved!
After: There is nothing wrong with spending vast amounts of time annoying people, followed by even vaster amounts of time when it is almost as if you have become invisible to the human race, as if you don't matter at all, and never will! It is just a different part of the spectrum from being loved. A little shift over.
At one time in my younger youth, I was convinced that the "lowering your standards" motto applied to those whose standards were so unattainably high in the first place that they were constantly setting themselves up to fail. In such individuals, I believed, getting rid of the most ludicrous of ambitions would free them up to accomplish more, not less, because they would no longer be strive-cringing in the shadow of their own self-flagellation cat-o-nine-tails poised to swipe.
I was less inclined to think it applied to writers like this poet I met once on a bus, who informed me he had written 1000 poems, all of the very good, "but only about half of them extraordinarily good, and of these, only another half exquisite" and so forth, till he wearily acknowledged with his artist's weltzshmerzy soul that only a dozen of his poems ranked among the top the world has ever seen.
And some of these, he admitted, didn't even rhyme!
The self-satisfied, the smug, the lazy, the entitled, the deluded, the silver-spoon-mouth-plugged: surely lowering their standards would do such fellows no good at all, only make them that much more prone to self-congratulation for less-than-zero accomplishments.
I am not sure when I realized that I was a member of this latter category. There was no moment of eureka or epiphany, just a slow dawning upon me (like when you realize the borderline enjoyable jazz music you turned on the radio 45 minutes ago has somehow transformed into cacophonous fusion that has been annoying, in a low grade way, the bejesus out of you for a good while now) that I have always been more or less smugly satisfied with my accomplishments, or at least lately I have been, even though there is no ostensible reason for such satisfaction!
And this is when I did actually have an actual eureka moment.
We can all benefit from lowering our standards, even those of us who don't really have very high ones to begin with.
Sure, try to get better at swimming. Try to be a nicer person, get stronger, do good things, eat more exotic fruits and recovery potions, etc. ad nauseam.
But realize that everything becomes easier, and your chances of true improvement almost always increase, if you take that little priestly superego guy, your internal editor, your homonculus that looks like you but sports a halo, or the soul of a kindly grandparent that comes to guide you in moments of trouble, or whatever other entity within you that says: you can do better!--if you simply take this well-meaning entity, place your hands around his or her strangely wrinkled neck, and choke it till even you can recognize the petechial hemorrhaging in the whites of its damnably judgmental eyes!