Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the game of Limbo the ultimate goal is to set the bar as low as possible. The lower you go, the harder it becomes and the last person standing (or bending in this case) wins. Ironically, it is much the same in the game of life. People who set the bar lower, often times, reap the most benefits. However, unlike limbo, a lower bar doesn’t equate to a greater a challenge, instead it creates a fa├žade of success based on “under promising and over-delivering”.

We all set goals. We are a list making, goal setting society. In fact, once a year we all set goals that most of us never achieve – these are known as  resolutions: lose thirty pounds, quit smoking, drink less, drink more, get a promotion, get married, and the list goes on and on. Experts (on life apparently) say to set “realistic goals”, that way you can achieve a feeling of success rather than failure. For example set a goal to lose a pound a week instead of 50 lbs for the year. That way every week you can pat yourself on the back, receive a round of applause and give yourself a cookie (figuratively of course). Rather than say “get married”, set the goal to “go out on a date”. In essence, lower your expectations now or the alternative is that you will walk around feeling depressed and defeated at all times. This logic had been ingrained in our heads since kindergarten. Sure, they wrote “dream big” in rainbow colors on the wall, but what they really meant is “dream within a reasonable amount” and don’t set yourself up for failure. Those who want to become famous actors, rock stars, and Pulitzer Prize winners have a big fat, future of failure sitting in front of them. That’s why your waiter is always bitter, every casting director started out acting, and every assistant is secretly writing a book. But, if you set the bar lower (i.e dream of being an assistant, that way when you find yourself answering calls for eight hours you’ll feel fulfilled), you are more likely to view your life as successful; and those around you are more likely to reward you when you finally DO accomplish something.

For example, when I was in high school I hated “most improved” awards. I thought they were bullshit. Why should the kid who went from a C- to a B+ get an award when I got A’s and no one gave a damn? Why should the girl who went from a bad soccer player, to a mediocre one get an award for “most improved” when some people started out good already? These awards, unfortunately, have carried over into real life. Today, in the corporate structure, often times “improvement” in work gets you more than simply being good at your job from the start. For example, if John makes ten spreadsheets a week, and then one week turns in eight his boss will wonder what happened. If he does it two weeks in a row, most likely his boss will call him in his office in order to inform John that his work is slipping. Thus, his eight spreadsheets are considered a failure. However, if Bob turns in seven spreadsheets every week (well under the performance of John) and his boss expects he will never do more than seven, but miraculously turns in eight two weeks in a row he will be praised for his improvement. His boss will feel like he is nurturing a good employee with “potential” and when it comes time to promote either John or Bob which will he choose -  The most improved? Or the guy whose work is slipping? So even though both employees turned in the same number of spreadsheets, the one with a lower bar gets the prize. This teaches us to literally work below our potential in order to create room to grow, because God forbid people actually expect anything from us.

This idea of under promising and over delivering applies to relationships as well. I was recently sitting in a trendy bar / club (appropriately named Glam Bar ... in Shanghai FYI) with a male friend of mine who was telling me how much he missed his girlfriend in the last two weeks. I found this to be rather endearing because a.) I know this boy very well and he has had many girlfriends, and b.) he never really “gushes” about them, or even really likes them all that much. I was glad that he found a girl he thought to be interesting, smart and beautiful. Then he said something rather strange (and sparked the reason for this article). He told me, in essence, that he constantly thinks of cute, romantic gestures to do for his girlfriend like pick her up daisies on Wednesdays because her grandmother kept them in her house, or bring home wine and take-out because she is too tired to cook after work, or surprise her with a charm necklace that reminds her of her childhood. How cute (slash also gag me) I thought. Then he concluded this little speech with, “But I never do them…ever”.

I could hear the brakes screeching in my head, “Why not” I questioned, while simultaneously knocking him off the “great boyfriend” pedestal I had just placed him on. He smiled, “Because then she would expect it all the time, and if it ever stopped she would think I was mad, or read too much into it, or  break up with me.” How sad. This girl is missing out on all these great romantic inclinations because we, as humans, come to expect things and when they are taken away we get angry rather than appreciate them while they are there. Thus, my friend is setting his relationship bar as low as possible, that way nothing will be expected of him, he won’t feel any obligations and his girlfriend will reward him if he brings her flowers once, because it will be so shocking that he got off his ass and thought of her.

The problem with this philosophy on life (which proves to help people in the short-term) is that it hinders humanity in the long term. How did I make the leap from flowers every Wednesday to the plight of humanity you ask? Here is how: when I began my corporate career post college I found that the faster I did the work, the more work I had to do, and if I ran out of work my bosses thought I wasn’t doing anything at all. “At least pretend to work” they told me once. When I began bartending I found the same thing to be true, the slower I clean things the “less cleaning” I have to do. If I finish side work too fast they just find more side work so I don’t look idle. “At least pretend to clean” my boss told me once. Wow. People would have us “pretend” to work rather than work hard and efficiently and then call it a day. This does not teach us to be the best we can be. In fact, it taught me to work slower, not think so much and get as little done as possible. That is a terrible lesson, but it’s one we are all victims of. We carry this into our love lives as well (as showcased above), and our friendships. Don’t be too available, don’t offer too many free rides, don’t babysit your neighbors kid too much or it will become expected of you, (this just in, the word “expectation” is the most dreaded word in the English language). Set the bar lower…that way no one will expect you to do anything, and just existing will get you a pat on the back. We’re not two years old anymore, we shouldn’t only set goals like “talk, walk and sip out of a sippy cup”. We need to think bigger.

This is Los Angeles, the city of dreams. People come here with aspirations to be famous; to have careers that people in Ohio only fantasize about. The economy of this city depends on setting the bar higher. So why are we being taught to think so small? Shouldn’t we reward people who work the hardest, are the best spouses, the smartest and so on?  I figured out that the problem isn’t the setting of the bar…it’s the setting of the expectation. We always notice when something is missing, but never appreciate it while it is actually there. The bosses only realize how much work their best employee does once they decide to quit. You only see how great getting flowers every week is once it stops. We, as a people, need to start being appreciative of things other people do for us, rather than expecting them. That way we can once again set the bar higher. If we don’t start looking around and saying “thank you” then there will be no daisies on Wednesdays, or Thursday night champagne. There will be no surprise gifts, or work bonuses “just because”. Forget “most improved awards” lets start rewarding the people who are the most dependable, the ones who work hard all the time, the ones we have started to overlook because they are always there for us. Don’t complain about what people don’t do, be appreciative for what they DO do. That way we will all strive a little more, try a little harder, dream bigger and turn the life of the limbo into a high jump.


  1. Hi Taryn,

    The toughest thing is to get beyond the small, linear thinkers, who tend to run places of employment, and possibly the world. These are the so-called normal people who don't aspire to anything but a steady gig, no matter the inanity of it. For the creative aspirant, the same sort of steady plugging is the ticket. The well-placed query letter and the one life changing "yes," everyone needs. Then the small thinkers shrink further into the rear view mirror.

    Cousin Mark

    That guy has lots of dates because?

  2. Hi Mark!

    Words from a wise man indeed! I definitely need that ultimate "yes" so I don't have to drown in the ridiculous and obsure practices of coorporate life where acting like a robot is rewarded more so than thinking outside the box.

    AND he gets lots of dates because he went to Yale. Kidding! He's also quite cute:)

    Oh, and thanks for reading! I hope it was slightly entertaining.

  3. We're all searching for that that, yes. Now, what are the rewards for for the robot thing? Oh, well, Yale and cute can work on multiple levels, depending . . .

  4. You are most welcome, and yes it was very entertaining.

  5. If you don't expect too much of me, you might not be let down. - Gin Blossoms

  6. Very appropriate early 90's pop reference. Were you recently watching VH1 by chance?