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The Curse of Great Expectations


I can benchmark everything now.

I can benchmark my morning workout. The rowing machine tells me if today’s workout was a personal best. Even better, I can go online and compare my workout to the efforts of thousands of other people.

On my way to work, I can track my mileage. (My record is 89 mpg). Once there, I can watch the status of my books on Amazon, comparing their sales to every other book published in the English language… and then go check out JungleScan.com, where I can track the book’s performance over the last 90 days.

The problem with benchmarking is that nothing but continuous improvement (except maybe spectacular results) satisfies very much. Who wants to know that they will never again be able to beat their personal best rowing time? What entrepreneur wants to embrace the fact that the wait time at her new restaurant franchise is 20% behind the leader—and there’s no obvious way to improve it?

Our interconnected, 500-channel world lets us be picky. We can want a husband who is as tall as that guy, as rich as this guy and as loyal as my brother-in-law. We can ask for an apartment that is in just the right location, with just the right view and just the right rent—and then reject it because the carpeting in the hallway isn’t as nice as the one in the building next door. Monster lets us see 5,000 resumes for every job opening… and imagine that we can find someone with this guy’s education and that woman’s professional experience—who works as cheap as this person and is as local as that one.

In the old days, data was a lot harder to come by. You didn’t know everything about everyone. All the options weren’t right there, laid out in Froogle and compared by epinions.com. We didn’t have reality TV shows where each and every component of a singer’s presentation or a bridal prospect’s shtick were painstakingly compared.

Yes, benchmarking is terrific. Benchmarking is the reason that cars got so much better over the last twenty years. Benchmarking has the inexorable ability to make the mediocre better than average, and it pushes us to always outperform.

But it stresses us out. A benchmarked service business or product (or even a benchmarked relationship) is always under pressure. It’s hard to be number one, and even harder when the universe we choose to compare our options against is, in fact, the entire universe.

Of course, the boomers have this problem even worse (and we’re all boomers, aren’t we? Even if you’re not, we don’t care—it’s all about us). Boomers are getting older. We can benchmark our eyesight, our rowing speed, our memory or even our ability to come up with great ideas at a moment’s notice. As a result, we benchmark ourselves into a funk. We get stressed because we have to acknowledge that nothing is as good as it was.

In addition to the stress, benchmarking against the universe actually encourages us to be mediocre, to be average, to just do what everyone else is doing. The folks who invented the Mini (or the Hummer, for that matter) didn’t benchmark their way to the edges. Comparing themselves to other cars would never have created these fashionable exceptions. What really works is not having everything being up to spec… what works is everything being good enough, and one or two elements of a product or service being AMAZING.

So, I’m officially letting go. I’m going to stop comparing everything to my all time best, to your all time best, to everyone’s all time best. Instead of benchmarking everything, perhaps we win when we accept that the best we can do is the best we can do—and then try to find the guts to do one thing that’s remarkable.

Was this my best blog entry ever, or what?

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