Raise the bar, and then break it down

Text of the speech:

Raising the Bar on Yourself

Raising the bar on yourself. What does that mean? Well, “to raise the bar” simply means, “to set a higher standard”.

Raising the bar on yourself just means setting a higher standard for yourself.

At first, it sounds intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. You see, raising the bar doesn’t have to mean raising the bar a lot, it can mean raising the bar just a little.

That, I think is the secret.

Don’t raise the bar a lot, just raise it a little. Break big goals down, further and further, until they are small and specific, something you can do easily.

Nowdays I teach business English, freelance private lessons.

I get a lot of students who come to me with big goals. When I ask them, what do you want to accomplish, many people tell me “I want to speak better English”.

Well, yeah, but don’t we all. I mean, I’m 39 years old, and I’ve been speaking English all my life, and I want to speak better English, too!

So that goal is too big. It’s not going to help you at all. Break it down, into something smaller that we can work with.

So they tell me, “I want to speak better English at work”. Still too big. What does that mean?

“I want to communicate with my vendors”. There we go, now we’re getting somewhere.

But it’s still too big. Break it down, further and further and further, until it’s so specific it’s almost ridiculous.

“On Tuesday next week, I want to email my German vendor to tell them how to write the invoice, so the goods clear Turkish Customs faster”. Now, that’s a good one. Why? Because it’s tangible, measurable. We can hit it quickly, and when we hit it, we’ll know it.

Here’s another example:

“I want to speak fluently”. It’s too big. Break it down.

“I want to speak better at work”. Still too big. Break it down.

“I want to speak well at meetings”. Getting closer, but still too big. Break it down.

“I get nervous introducing myself at meetings”. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. A meeting might last an hour, but your introduction only lasts 2 minutes, and you can control it. So write your introduction, and practice it, over and over and over. Practice it yourself. Then practice it with me. Then practice it with your husband or wife. Then practice it staring into a camera (because camera’s almost always make people nervous).

When you’re so tired and bored with your introduction that you want to fall asleep, then you’re ready to go. Do it for real, at your next meeting.

Here’s another example. Let’s use Toastmasters for this one.

When you first start at Toastmasters, maybe you’re nervous. No problem. But keep coming to Toastmasters, and keep breaking it down until you find something you can do.

How about coming up here to give a prepared speech for 6 minutes. Too big? Fine, break it down. How about Table Topics, coming up here to speak for 2 minutes? Too big? Fine, break it down. Do one of the jobs, like Listener. Too big? Fine, break it down even further. Be the Timer, the Timer speaks less than just about everyone!

These small steps are the key to progress. They might seem small, and some of them even seem ridiculous. But do them.

Sometimes, the tool you use to break down the wall seems totally irrelevant. That’s fine, that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is, does it help you break down the wall?

Here’s a personal example:

A few months ago, I started recording myself speaking Turkish, and putting it on the web. Do you know why I started that? I started that because I am nervous speaking to my father-in-law. I get nervous about making mistakes in front of him. Now, with that recording on the web, I make mistakes, every Tuesday and every Thursday, in front of hundreds of people. Mistakes don’t embarrass me as much anymore. So now, when I talk to my father-in-law, I am more relaxed. Yes, of course, I still make lots of mistakes with him. But I talk to him more, because I got used to the nervousness.

Some people obsess about the big goal, about being perfect. They take a small step, and then look at the huge distance remaining to the big goal, and they get discouraged. But the key is not to compare today to the future. Compare today to yesterday. Ask yourself, is today at least a tiny bit better than yesterday? If the answer is yes, congratulations. If the answer is no, that’s fine, don’t worry, just change your tactics a little bit and keep trying.

Don’t celebrate reaching the big goals. Celebrate reaching the small ones. Don’t say, “when I reach this distant goal, I will go lay on the beach in Tahiti”. Say, “after I make this phone call, I will go to the bakkal and buy myself a candy bar.” Or, “after I write this 3 sentence email, I will drink some tea.”

Raising the bar is not the point. Getting better is the point. If a high bar makes you intimidated, if a high bar makes you sit down and do nothing, it’s completely worthless. Lower the bar, and keep lowering the bar, until you are comfortable enough to stand up and try.

If you take this approach in life, I’ve got to warn you, there are a couple pitfalls, things you need to watch out for. In particular, there are three I want to tell you about.

The first one is overpromising. If you get used to raising the bar on yourself, then when people come to you and ask for big things, you’re more likely to say, “Sure, you bet, no problem”. But in reality, you can’t do them. Maybe you don’t have the time, or you don’t have the knowledge. Two weeks later, the other person gets angry, and asks you why you didn’t do it. You tell them, honestly, “Sorry, I didn’t have the time”, but in reality, they don’t care. All they know is, they were counting on you, and you didn’t do it. I make this mistake all the time. Because of this, I probably piss off 3 people for every one that I make happy. So you’ve got to be careful about what you promise.

The second one is tiring yourself out. Each goal seems small, and when you reach it, you think, that was so easy, I’ll set another one. Then you reach that, and you think, I’ll set another one. Then you think, “I’ll take a break after this one”, but then you finish that one, and you think, I’ll just do one more thing, THEN I’ll take a break. Pretty soon, the whole year is gone, and you never took a break. You’ve got to watch out for that, for tiring yourself out.

And the third one is, tiring OTHER people out. If you get stuck in this cycle, of small goal, after small goal, after small goal, you might get excited that you’re finally making progress, and you might want to keep going, but the people around you are going to want to take a break, or they are going to want you to take a break with them. So watch out for that, too – keep a close eye on how you are affecting other people.

So watch out for those three things. Don’t go overboard. But when your big goals seem too far away, break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. Stop sitting on the sofa dreaming about the big huge goal, and stand up and start reaching the tiny, tiny little ones that will eventually get you there.

It reminds me of something my grandpa used to tell me. He said, even if you only have a 1% chance of success, that means if you are willing to fail 99 times, you can have what you want. No one else is willing to fail 99 times. So if you are, you’ll be the only one left standing at the end, holding the big prize.