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Procrustean Beds: How to (Not) Gauge Your Success

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 a bed by cutting off their limbs or stretching their body parts. Not very cosy. In real life, you can think of Procrustean beds as metaphorical standards, often arbitrary, to which you’re forced to conform. Regardless of your individual circumstances that is. Also not very relaxed.

No wonder life can feel like torture, whether it’s in the way we use language or in education. Just think of intellectual stretching, a legit pedagogical term. It’s a positive thing in general. Don’t get me wrong. But whether you feel good about being stretched very much depends on how much and to where. In other words, to what standard you’re being held and how success is measured. In education and beyond, there are three essential reference norms that are relevant: criteria-based, social and individual.

Three Ways to Gauge Success

First. the criteria-based reference norm determines whether you have achieved a predefined standard or mastered an ability.

It has its flaws: 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.

Second, the social reference norm compares you with others. How have you performed in relation to your peers or any other reference group for that matter? Where’s the average, who are the best and who needs improvement?

It has its flaws: This norm depends a lot on the group to which you happen to be compared. It can be demotivating if you consistently fall short of others. Even though you might have pretty excellent abilities. Imagine your cover band plays in small regional towns. All you have to do is be better than the other cover rock band in the area. If you put your songs online, though, you suddenly compete for listeners with groups across the planet.

Finally, the individual reference norm compares you to yourself. Have you improved over time? In a sense, it’s the ultimate social norm in that your reference is different versions of yourself.

But it’s not without flaws: Personal growth is great, but you would want your heart surgeon to meet a certain standard. You’d probably want the best of all surgeons you can find, too. Even looking at ourselves, we can still have distorted views of where we should be and how much we should’ve gotten better at something. We make our own Procrustean beds so to speak; wondering why we don’t fit.

Good News, and Bed News

The good news is the individual norm has been found to be most motivating and useful for personal growth. It’s also the one you have the most influence over. The bad news is, the market doesn’t seem to care too much about the individual one.

If you’ve ever gone through a recruiting process you may have noticed that your personal progress gets you a pat on the back at best. As long as you don’t meet the criteria laid out in the job description, or some people are deemed more suitable than you, you’re not getting the job. Would you want it any other way? Should you stretch yourself to make yourself fit this Procrustean bed and surrender to the Peter Principle?

It’s an impossible task, isn’t it? In essence, it feels like you’re asked to surrender yourself to the unpredictability of other people’s expectations. All while neglecting the one success norm that would keep you motivated to achieve them. So the question then becomes how you should balance the three norms.

Closing Thoughts

Ideally, you put yourself into a position where you can choose your own high goals and standards. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday while not getting sidetracked or discouraged by paying too much attention to others. Your individual reference norm is the driver to find your Circle of Competence. Your peers and reference groups can be your signposts and inspiration.

Instead of being cramped (or cramping yourself) into the beds others did not make for you, pick your own along your journey; the ones that reflect the stretch you can handle at any given time. There’s plenty to choose from and you’ll sleep much more comfortably.

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