Key to happiness and productivity? Lower standards.

lower standards

“Lower Standards” Photo and essay by Janet Grace Riehl @2013



Shocked? That’s not what a creative catalyst is supposed to be saying—especially in America. I should be telling you to reach for the stars, live your dreams, be all you can be, anyone can be anything they like, the best is yet to be, and…knock yourself out. In the last five years I’ve come to believe that all this hard-driving exceptionalism, shimmering illusion of freedom, and unbounded expectations does, indeed, knock us out…leaves us bouncing on the ropes, and down for the count.

It wasn’t until I was 57 that I stumbled across a life-altering truth that years of therapy, body work, sweat lodges and fire walking hadn’t revealed. My father was a perfectionist. And, for that matter, upon reflection, so was our family culture.

I owe it all to my mother’s physical therapist. He made house calls until he found that he just couldn’t work with us. Mother stubbornly refused. Even through the veiled mind of dementia she knew what she wanted and didn’t want to do. We alternated coaxing and bullying—but nothing would change her intransigence. She’d gone through the nasty accident that killed my sister; almost died in the hospital; survived a rehabilitation facility; and finally come home. Who were we to tell her what to do? I don’t remember what prompted his remark to me. But, he motioned me to the other room and in a low voice said, “Your father is a perfectionist.” This revelation reverberated right down to me toes. Oh! So that was it.

Our family is populated by high-achievers. My great grandfather E. A. Riehl was a horticulturalist of note. My father says he was one of the 10 most prominent horticulturalists in the country. We have a Gold Medal certificate for fruit that he was awarded during the St. Louis World Fair (United States of America Universal Exposition MDCCCCIV).  My sister Julia Thompson was a world-class physicist. My niece is one of the top 5 experts on predatory lending and the mortgage crisis. She’s testified before congress, been in the room with Bernanke, and been interviewed by Dan Rather. That’s way too much to live up to. A family saying when we came home with good grades was “No more than I would have expected you to do.” That could be taken in several ways. The best of which is a vote of confidence.

Before 2004 I lived a nomadic life for decades. After my sister’s death, I came back home in earnest to walk the long road toward belonging. During my mother’s last illness my father and I were her primary caretakers. I traveled  between Northern California for 3 weeks and then Illinois for 6 weeks. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked and contained many gifts along with the melt downs. We lowered standards. I wasn’t as brave or kind or patient as I would have liked to have been. But, I was there until she died on May 1st 2006.

In summer of 2007 I came back to the Midwest to stay. I continued to live between two places: country and city; Pop’s place and my place; the past and the present and the forestalled future. I call it “bi-locating.” In our family care team each of us has our own portfolio which matches our particular talents. My brother—an Eagle Scout who keeps on earning those merit badges—handles our property and family business. My niece meticulously deals with my father’s medical treatment to the extent that she could no doubt pass the practical nurse exam. I do the younger daughter stuff, the soft skills stuff, styling myself as my father’s executive and social secretary, publisher, publicist, creative catalyst, confident, and who knows what. I did my best to live up to my father’s expectations with his never-ending agenda of what could be done—and, gosh, wasn’t I just the right person to do it?

In 2011 I began my journey of stepping back and progressively letting go. I lowered standards. I resigned from my unofficial position as Executive Director of the Thompson-Riehl Lineage and Heritage Society. I told my father I had no juice to produce another book for him. I stopped traveling, going to conferences, and rarely gave talks or workshops. I maintained membership in very few professional associations—Story Circle Network is one of my last hold-outs. Nothing seemed very important any more.

In 2012 I parked my blog-magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century with its mission to create connections through the arts and across cultures. For seven years it had been the heart of my labor of love. I’d wanted to become a player in the “blogosphere,” and in a small way, I had. But, my postings had dwindled drastically. In November I signed a contract with a techie who’ll keep my site safe, and stopped posting entirely. I stepped away. I lowered standards.

This year I continue to step away. I’ve resigned from all sorts of things that cost me more energy than they give: support groups; email notifications of all sorts, sending birthday cards or even wishing my friends “happy birthday” on Facebook.  I’m an over-responder. I’m doing my best to soften that reflex, and it turns out it’s okay.

My creative life flows in an underground stream, not as a spring-swollen creek. I’m coming back to violin again with music buddy who is also coming back to her violin. I’ve made 1,150 Doodles on my phone since October 2011, and taken 450 photos with my phone. Rather than a blog-magazine I micro-blog on Facebook. Each of these art paths are possible because of lowered standards. I’m playing for the sake of playing, not to be concert mistress. With my phone as my Doodle studio and camera my equipment is always with me. The small canvas is so friendly that I do not scare myself off.

And, I stay loyal to my once-a-month Creative Catalyst column.This is the 55th post since November 2008.  For 23 of these I collaborated with my long-time friend Stephanie Farrow—one of the most exacting editors and clearest thinkers in the world—who’s always brought out the best in me. We worked in cycles on creative topics such as: What is creativity, anyway? How to use fear. Collaboration. Multi-talented. Harvesting. These were structured as tightly written (but friendly!) tips articles.

Stephanie and I spent weeks brainstorming and crafting posts that were ready well-before the deadline. Let it be said that Stephanie is a perfectionist. Would I be able to write Creative Catalyst without her? Well, yes—but not in that format or style. Since then I’ve written 32 columns on my own which are still good, but not even trying to be perfect. I’ve reverted to my seat-of-the-pants style, often writing the column the morning of posting.  Twice I’ve asked to slip my deadline to later in the month. I’ve lowered standards. Good is good enough. And, every once in a while something better than good comes through.

Lowering standards doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the quality of the work. For the “Lower Standards” photo that illustrates this column I snapped six takes with my phone-camera. Then, as is so often the case, I chose the first one. Stephanie, as she has so often, inspired  this photo. She shared photos of writers giving advice that fit on one hand.  What I want to say is: Care. But not so much that you are a keen disappointment to yourself all the time. Find some way to make it fun.  Then find some way to let what needs to go, go.

13 responses to “Key to happiness and productivity? Lower standards.

  1. No one can give 120% forever and they shouldn’t try, That’s why there’s a red line on those gauges; it can be exceeded but to tun there full time is asking for a big time burn out or crash. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  2. Interesting path. But I don’t quite get the notion of lower standards when you are actually talking about equivalent results. Or maybe even superior results. What the world needs are good outcomes, not strict rules for producing them. You are just telling us that we can skip the intermediate pain and head directly for dessert.

  3. I have come around to this same way of thinking. I was getting too overwhelmed trying to get EVERYTHING right, and I had too many everythings going at once to ever achieve that. So now I am moving forward on a lot more things and having a lot more fun doing them. Curt, I love your observation: “…we can skip the intermediate pain and head directly for desert.”

  4. Pingback: Key to happiness and productivity? Lower standards. – Dean Chalk

  5. So beautiful and honest, Janet.
    Shalom, Mary Jo

  6. Curt, this piece contains several strands that I am still figuring out how to untangle. You helped me see that changing my relationship with Riehl Life was part of a rite of passage, and shifting identity. That’s how transition is. As we let things go, we make space for what’s to come. You know that one, for sure. –Janet

  7. Thanks, Khadijah. Yes. Focus. Then, relax already!

    Mary Jo…thank you.


  8. I get this! At 40, I looked around and realized I just didn’t want to do this anymore. “This” being the endless all-work-and-no-play routine. So I downsized, trimmed off the excess – and ended up with a much more balanced approach to all of it. Happy to be here on the other side – I’m sure you would agree!

  9. As always you “Hit it on the nail” I like! Julia

  10. Thank you for this. I’ve been in the process of letting go for nearly a year and I’m getting better at it. I’m surprised at the wonderful things that have popped into my life since I’ve let go of many of my musts and shoulds.

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