Raising the Standards
tom walsh


I've had something verified in my life recently, and it has to do with how our thoughts affect our reality.  It's really a rather simple concept, and it showed itself in a very simple way, but it's a reminder to me to be careful of complacence and of being satisfied with the status quo.

We have a basketball backboard and hoop on our garage at the end of our driveway.  One of my favorite ways of relaxing after grading tons of papers or working on websites is to go out there and shoot baskets, especially on those brisk New England autumn days when the air is fresh and the leaves are falling.  I enjoy letting go of the ball and watching it hit or miss, I enjoy the sound of the basketball bouncing on the concrete, and I enjoy the feel of the ball in my hands.

I also enjoy setting challenges for myself, and I have a ritual that I go through every time I go out to shoot around:  I can't go back in the house until I get ten free throws in a row.  There's no compromise here, and sometimes I've been out there an extra half-hour or so just trying to get ten in a row.  I would very often reach eight or nine and then miss, and have to start all over again.  (I can easily shoot 85-90% on free throws, but even that percentage implies one miss per ten shots.)  I do it mostly because I like to practice my concentration on something other than reading and grading and writing, and I like to practice my shots.  I do it basically because it's fun.

Recently, though, I decided to try an experiment based on everything I've been reading and learning about life over the last few years as I've actively researched the topic.  I raised the limit:  now I can't go into the house until I get fifteen in a row.

In theory, it should take me longer to get fifteen in a row than it did to get ten in a row; after all, I have to get ten in a row first, and then make another five without a single miss.  Fifteen is harder because they all have to be in a row--my overall percentage probably won't change, but the distribution of the shots will have to.  No matter what, I can't go inside now until I make fifteen shots in a row.

My Findings

Sub-headings make my findings seem more scientific, don't they?

In any case, one of the most important things that I've learned is that ten shots in a row is now a piece of cake.  I have no problems at all reaching ten--my first miss now usually comes after 12 or 13 shots.  When I used to reach 8 or 9, something happened in my mind that made those shots more difficult, that made my concentration less effective.  Now that 8 or 9 shots are much further away from the final goal, they no longer have the urgency associated with them that they used to have.

Plus, I have to concentrate harder now, knowing that my goal is much more difficult to achieve.  This higher level of concentration actually makes shooting baskets easier, and I find that once I hit the fifteen, it's very easy for me to go on to twenty or even thirty nowadays--before, I'd usually get to 16 or 17 before I'd miss.

What This Means to Me

"Big deal," you say, and I have to agree to a certain extent--after all, we're talking shooting baskets in a driveway here.  But to me the most important part isn't in the baskets, it's in what happens to us when we raise our standards.  We've all heard many variations of the saying that tells us to aim for the stars, for even if we don't reach them, we'll still get higher than we would have otherwise.  But actually seeing that put into practice in my life is very important to me, as I can see some of the principles of getting more out of life unfolding for me.

When we set our goals or standards higher, we force ourselves to perform at a higher level, and we give ourselves the opportunity to accomplish something that we wouldn't have otherwise accomplished.  When I was running track in high school, my goal for the mile was five minutes; I never made it, but I did make it to 5:15, a time that I was very happy with.  If I had set my goal at six minutes, though, the chances are that I never would have reached 5:15.

Of course, there's the problem of setting unrealistic goals and the resulting disappointment of not reaching them.  The problem there, though, is with the disappointment, not with the goals.  What's the big deal if we only read forty books this year instead of the fifty we had wanted to read?  That's still better than the twenty or so we probably would have read if we hadn't set a goal, or if we had set a lower goal.

Every time I reach ten baskets now, I'm reminded of something very important--I set my standards, and it's up to me to raise them if I want to continue to accomplish things and to make more out of my life.  The old goal, which used to take a long time to reach, is now relatively simple.  The new goal has made me a better free-throw shooter, at least as far as getting them in consecutively.

And I'm asking myself now what other aspects of my life may benefit if I were to re-visit my goals and standards and maybe raise them a bit?  Ten is now easy--what else can I make easier to accomplish in my life?


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