A couple of years ago I embarked on a personal transformational journey that has left me in the best physical shape of my life. I’ve never been fitter, and I’ve never worn a smaller clothing size in my adult life. In fact, I wear the same–and sometimes smaller–size I did when I was in high school. So what’s the problem? I weigh more than I did back then. Even though I’m sporting more muscle and it’s better distributed, by all rights I should wear one or two sizes bigger. Isn’t it great that the women’s clothing industry works so hard to keep my self-esteem in tact?

No, no, NO. I completely disagree with this approach which, beyond the clothing industry, has pervaded its way through so many aspects of our American lives. Of course I want to be a smaller size, but not by way of recalibrating the scale. Tell me the truth; don’t simply lower the bar.

Really, this post isn’t about my dress size–no one really cares about that but me. The fact is that what I see in my closet is reflective of what I see in schools, in business, in the world at large. Somewhere along the line, it has become more important to avoid the possibility of offense than to be real. In that process, we’ve lowered our standards and begun to accept less, calling it more. We grade everything on a curve.

Here are some examples:

  • College exams where 70% becomes an A, because that was the highest grade. (I’ve seen this happen regularly.) Shouldn’t we be responsible for knowing the material rather than just passing the test?
  • An airline which receives kudos because its on-time performance is better than all the rest, when the number would look disappointing if it stood alone. Late is late, regardless of what everyone else does.
  • My own results in a recent 5K race, where my overall standing for that particular event was better than ever, but my time was slower than it was in the same event in each of the last two years. My place doesn’t matter; I’m slowing down.
  • The highest levels of recycling participation ever in this country.Our landfills continue to grow and our landscapes are still polluted. We may be doing better, but we can’t say we’ve achieved success.
  • Trade show attendance that is up from last year.What if last year was the worst year ever?

If these examples seem somewhat myopic to you, I would argue that their hyper-focused nature illustrates the pervasiveness of the issue. Our tendency to measure success by the performance of our peers rather than a particular benchmark doesn’t truly make us better.

Pick a spot in the distance and aim for it. If you don’t make it, don’t take comfort in where anyone else landed. Stand up, brush yourself off, and get back on the road. It may be tough, but think how satisfying it will be when you get there.

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