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3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on Measuring Success

Measuring Success is an exclusive issue of my free weekly newsletter featuring 3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on critical thinking, practical philosophy, decision-making, mental models & more.

The Bed of Procrustes · Reference Norms · Overnight Success

I. The Bed of Procrustes

Procrustean beds are not as comfy as you might imagine. They’re named after the mythological Greek villain Procrustes. The son of Poseidon abducted travellers to his refuge where he made them fit into his bed. Regrettably, he did so by cutting off their limbs or stretching their body parts.

Metaphorically, we can think of the Bed of Procrustes as an arbitrary standard. One to which we’re forced to conform, regardless of our individual circumstances. A bit of intellectual stretching is highly desirable. But whether we feel good about being stretched, very much depends on how much and to where. In other words, to what standard we’re being held and how success is measured.

II. Reference Norms

In education and beyond, there are three essential reference norms used when measuring success: criteria-based, social and individual.

The criteria-based reference norm determines whether we have achieved a predefined standard or mastered an ability. However, the evaluation can be arbitrary and opaque. The goal post might be moved along the way. The standard itself may be virtually unachievable. Imagine how an audience would decide if your cover rock band is any good. People don’t want you to sound as crappy on stage as the original. They want your songs to sound live like the original sounds on the album. Put differently, you’re being held to a standard that not even the bands you cover have ever achieved.

The social reference norm compares us with others. How have we performed in relation to our peers or any other reference group for that matter? Where’s the average, who are the best and who needs improvement? However, this norm depends a lot on the group to which we happen to be compared. It can be demotivating if we consistently fall short of others. Imagine our cover band playing in small regional towns. All we have to do is be better than the other cover rock band in the area. If we put our songs online, though, we suddenly compete for listeners with groups across the planet.

Finally, the individual reference norm compares us to ourselves. Have we improved over time? In a sense, it’s the ultimate social norm in that your reference is different versions of yourself. Generally, it’s a good idea to compare ourselves to how good we were yesterday. However, if we’re being totally honest, we’d want our cover band to meet certain musical standards of ability. This reference norm also doesn’t save us from having distorted views of how much we should’ve improved. We make our own Procrustean beds so to speak; wondering why we don’t fit.

III. Overnight Success

At the end of the day, finding a balance between the three reference norms seems like the best strategy. When measuring our success a bit of perspective doesn’t hurt either:

It takes years to become an overnight success.


On a similar note, you may be interested in my essay on the Circle of Competence: How to Escape Competition Through Authenticity.🐘

Have a great week,