The Necessity of Standards
Hello, good people! I hope you are doing well. Let’s jump right into today’s Stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Theodore Roosevelt on the wisdom of his father:
“I was fortunate enough in having a father whom I have always been able to regard as an ideal man. It sounds a little like cant to say what I am going to say, but he did combine the strength and courage and will and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness, and purity of a woman. I was a sickly and timid boy. He not only took great and untiring care of me—some of my earliest remembrances are of nights when he would walk up and down with me for an hour at a time in his arms when I was a wretched mite suffering acutely with asthma—but he also most wisely refused to coddle me, and made me feel that I must force myself to hold my own with other boys and prepare to do the rough work of the world. I cannot say that he ever put it into words, but he certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would laugh at my being decent.” (Please bear in mind this quote comes from the year 1900 when it was more common to ascribe certain virtues to specific genders.)
ONE FROM TODAY
“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and What you allow.”
Source: Boundaries for Leaders, by Henry Cloud
ONE FROM US
As a parent and educator, I’m a bit obsessed with culture. No matter how hard we try to instill certain beliefs or habits, the dominant cultural norms will hold sway. If it is normal to do homework and study in your high-schoolers peer group, then studying for a couple of hours for a test will seem normal. But if no one studies, he or she will think that looking over their notes for 15-minutes was a feat of epic proportions. Any future attempts to learn topics of modest complexity will be shrouded under the intuition that it is all too hard. Likewise, if all their peers spend their evenings scrolling social media, then it will be that much more difficult for your kid to sit and talk with you without constantly feeling compelled to “catch up.” For better or worse, kids define themselves relative to their environment.
Standards are essential cultural mechanisms for pulling behavior up. I often refer to “The Standard” with the teams I train in the weight room. A couple of Fridays ago, I trained a JV Football team of about 70 athletes. I began the lift with a few jokes and a lot of energy. The team seemed to take this as an invitation to standardlessness. I began noticing many groups were skipping reps. Some athletes even skipped over entire exercises. I stopped the music, called for everyone’s attention, and called out the specific individuals. Then the entire team did 37 up-downs (I have a thing for prime numbers). Afterward, I explained:
I want to be able to come in on a Friday and have fun but that can’t be at the expense of doing things the right way. The Standard doesn’t change based on how you are feeling. The Standard is to approach your work with a sense of urgency and energy AND to hold teammates to that same standard. Skipping reps has never been and will never be acceptable. This is why everyone was punished. For so many members of a team to think that skipping exercises is acceptable, is indicative of a failing culture. In a good culture, the first seeds of such behavior are stamped out by the standard-bearing majority.
The reality is, this is a good group and they have more than risen to the occasion since this little reminder. It is human nature to relax as far as you are able to. We are all prone to complacency. This is why we all benefit from people who will call us out. The beauty of standards is that they create a fixed image in our mind that pulls us back to where we want to go whenever we falter. In a time when we are saturated in junk food, junk media, and sophisticated, individualized marketing packages, standards are more essential than ever. They take advantage of the only things that have ever reliably moved cultures towards better and worse behavior: reputation, social accountability, honor, and shame.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about social cohesion - the sense of connection and trust one feels in their society. Social cohesion is low right now and I’m convinced that among the largest reasons for this decline is a lost sense of shared standards.
My mother-in-law (MIL) has worked in the office of a Dallas-Fort Worth area public high school for almost two decades. A few weeks ago a group of us got to talking about lowered standards and she shared a recent phenomenon. Over the past few years, she has begun to field calls from parents whose children refused to come to school.
The calls tend to go something like this:
Mother: I can’t get Jason to go to school. I told him he has to go but he just went back to bed. So, like, what are y’all going to do?
MIL: I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I understand what you’re asking. He is refusing to go?
Mother: Yes! When I tell him to get up and go he just ignores me or says to get out of his room.
MIL: Oh… I see.
Mother: Yeah so, like, what are you going to do?
Mother: Yeah, the school. I mean, can you send somebody over or do something?
These parents never seem to have any sense that this is their responsibility or to even be embarrassed about their request. They are calling to suggest that the school should fix this for them. After all, it is the school’s attendance policy that created the problem.
While this strikes me as especially extreme, you can ask any educator and you’ll get a million other stories like this. More often than not, the parent’s demands are appeased. Students get a document that requires teachers to allow them to wear headphones in class, or they get to retake tests after they are caught cheating, or they get to retake the class through an easy online computer program, etc.
Educational cultures have been decimated over the past few decades by a million tiny concessions. These cloak themselves under noble sheepskin - buzz words like grace and compassion or catchy slogans like Failure is Not an Option. But this is just marketing to make it a little more palatable - to distract from the obvious lowering of standards and consequent deterioration of quality. And the cruel twist is, with each display of compassion our children grow that much less likely to be pulled to a higher level - to realize the immense power within themselves and grow capable of becoming who they’d wish to be.
We should be careful to avoid running to the opposite extreme, where standards are used to excuse rigidity and vindictiveness. There are kernels of truth in the new dogmas. Many students really do have crazy things going on in their personal lives and they need a compassionate, caring adult who can exercise common sense. Connection really does matter. And students really do prefer to learn from people who show emotions and seem to genuinely care about them. Greet kids enthusiastically. Call them by name. Take an interest in who they are. Catch kids doing right and praise those efforts. All of these positive behaviors are magic when working with youth, but only if they are accompanied by clear expectations and consistent accountability.
The extremes of toughness create an easy strawman to justify our slip into oversensitivity and standardlessness. As is usually the case, there should be a yin and yang - a healthy interplay between seemingly contradictory ideas like what we see above in the description of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s parenting.
But toughness still does matter - both mental toughness and physical toughness. These provide perhaps the best portal into building emotional resilience. Tough people are happier. They are less afflicted by life’s inevitable adversities and, in fact, they often take pleasure in overcoming them.
Oversensitivity, by contrast, is not a virtue. It saps energy and honesty from every room, insisting others walk on eggshells to protect fragile egos. Most importantly, the oversensitive are not happier for it. Their fragility is a burden that wreaks havoc on their lives. And yet we’ve created a system built around instilling greater sensitivity. We explicitly train it.
In his book 12 Rules For Life, psychologist Jordan Peterson writes about the standards that blue-collar working crews (and most effective teams) enforce among one another through what may be considered insensitive means:
“Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules.… Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent, and reliable?”
Natural social orders such as these produce strong social cohesion and high productivity. They turn hard work environments into places of laughter and connection. Most of all they pull behavior up. Being tough, entertaining, competent, and reliable is a good thing both for society and for each individual. This isn’t to say such environments can’t take harassment too far. But recognizing this is a call to balance, not the opposite extreme where every individual feeling is elevated above the common good.
In its consumptive fervor, modern culture is losing its standards of conduct and driving collective competency. Progress has been reduced to the expansion of convenience, efficiency, and comfort. Morality reduced to whether a person believes the right thing or not, whether traditional religious dogmas or new political ones (such as the disbelief in climate change for the far-right or the moral imperative to create equality of outcomes for the far left). Virtue requires nothing more than a like button. It is completely divorced from standards that require self-work - ideals like endurance, toughness, adaptability, courage, honesty, prudence, stewardship, health, or wisdom.
In an oversensitive and shameless society, we lack the positive peer pressure pushing people to exercise, read, stop scrolling social media, or even to be courteous. But even more, such a standardless society breeds alienation. Individuals have the comfort of standardlessness but at the cost of the shared passions, sacrifices, and trials that foster deep connections. This is far more devastating to our social species than most pains could ever be.
As always thank you for reading and sharing with your kindred spirits!
If you’re looking for some other worthwhile content right now I went through a few great podcasts this weekend while stepping up my walking game to take advantage of the great fall weather:
Conversations with Coleman: Coleman Hughes and Niall Ferguson
Conversations with Coleman: The Intellectual Roots of Wokeness
Making Sense: The Information Apocalypse
Life is too short to be normal,