Raise Your Floor, Not Your Ceiling

I recently came across a quote that instantly became my favorite quote of all time.

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”
~ Archilochus

This quote absolutely destroys the perspective that keeps people mediocre. It rejects the ineffective mainstream ideas of growth, which are based on using emotional manipulation to provoke action. This quote shatters that false hope, and replaces it with real hope.

I’ve found that the more I expect of myself, the less I actually do. I’ve tried to be that ultra-productive workbot, and the results have been awful. This is classic perfectionism at work: as expectations rise, so does the bar to entry. Then it’s just math. A higher bar to entry means fewer entries! I’ve written about this concept numerous times, including just last week.

Applied in a practical manner, this means that we should not prioritize pie-in-the-sky achievements and milestones, but rather simple, dull training. We should strive to train consistently above all else. If we do this, we’ll effectively raise the floor for that area of our lives. Then just as the quote states, at worst, we’ll “fall to the level of our training.”

Floors Vs. Ceilings

Where are your feet right now? Are they resting on the ceiling? Unlikely! They’re probably on the floor, and that’s a good analogy of reality. In reality, we walk on the floor, and though we may fantasize about flying to the ceiling, day after day, to our dismay, it’s the floor we find ourselves on.

Now think carefully about your life, the ups and downs in it. What is the greatest threat to your well-being? For me, that’s easy. It’s the threat of downward spirals of depression, inactivity, boredom, or complacency. Stated simply, the greatest threat to a person’s well-being is regression. That is, the greatest threat isn’t that we can’t fly to the ceiling, it’s that we crash through the floor and hurt ourselves.

Otherwise, as long as you’re moving forward in some capacity and your floor stays solid, you’re better off today than you were yesterday. Your amount of regression or growth is far less important than if you’re growing or regressing. If the floor in your home was falling out and leaving holes to fall into, you wouldn’t be saying, “Ah, it’s only 15% of our home.” You’d be more like, “AHHHH! The floor is caving in!” In the same way, if you started to fly a little bit, you wouldn’t say, “But I’m only 10 ft off the ground. Peter Pan flew much higher.” You’d be more like, “WOW! I’m FLYING!!!”

In other words, it’s very much win/lose and one/zero instead of a spectrum. You’re either moving forwards or backwards.

Most people think about how much they’d like to grow and accomplish. They’re looking up at the ceiling, wondering how they can lift it and fly higher. But massive amounts of forward progress aren’t much better than small amounts of forward progress. Flying is flying. To be fair, massive amounts of regression can be a lot worse than small amounts of regression, but they’re both still terrible and ideally avoided. Who wants any holes in their flooring?

So forward is good, backward is bad. Quantity isn’t important because of momentum and cycling—what starts small tends to grow larger anyway. Whether it’s holes in your floor or flying, any amount is significant.

Forget Your Ceiling and Bolster Your Floor

The reason I believe in raising the floor over the ceiling is twofold.

1. Raising the floor prevents regression. This is a core part of enjoying life and staying healthy mentally and physically. The higher your floor (defined by your training and habits), the safer you are against life’s many challenges.

2. Raising the floor raises your ceiling, too. The floor is the “base” of who you are. Like any strong foundation, it can be built higher and higher without risk of crumbling. A strong base gives you the confidence to build higher.

Here’s the problem I see in my own life and others’ lives: We are constantly tempted and told to aim for massive victories. It sounds sexy when all it means is that with a minimum workout of one hour, you’ll work out (much) less often than someone who accepts 30 seconds of dancing as a workout. When the criteria is “must be impressive,” you won’t try as often. When you aren’t trying, you’re not training, and that means you’ll have a weak foundation.

“But Stephen, Everyone Says to Dream Big”

The worst misconception about my books is that they encourage people to aim for mediocrity. Ha! How opposite! Let this next sentence sink into the deep recesses of your brain. File it away in the “never forget” section.

Whether you fail or succeed is not determined by your intentions, but by the actions you (do not) take.

You know how they say talk is cheap? Intentions are just that. Self talk. Anyone can tell themselves that they’re going to lose 50 pounds or make a million dollars. What’s the objective value of that sentiment if they don’t do it? ZERO. This is a silver bullet into the heart of motivation-based books and articles. They want you to believe that you can talk and expect yourself into greatness. I’m telling you to skip that BS and start with simple actions that can snowball. Forget expectations and enter the reality of action, which sounds less impressive but is far more exciting.

I’m proud of the fact that my methods are self-proven. I wrote Mini Habits (and my other books) by using a mini habit. “Stupid small” action has resulted in me writing three books. Success. Those books became successful. Double success. Before we get to thoughts like “that’s just luck” and “not every book will succeed,” let’s establish something far more important—you have to play the game for a chance to get lucky and win. You have to try to succeed!

The self-published books I wrote before Mini Habits didn’t succeed because… oh… I didn’t write any. It’s really difficult to sell books that don’t exist. After 10 years of writing, I had only written a short freebie book as a subscriber bonus. I had wanted to write a book to sell in those years, but I fell to the level of my training in that area, which was zero. I expected/wanted to write the best book in history back then, but nothing happened because I didn’t try. I didn’t try because I didn’t know how to write the best book in history (and still don’t). See how my big intention was worthless?

But I did know how to write 50 or more words per day, and that worked.

Forget the Pressure and Just Try

There’s a core concept here that unites big dreaming with small actions. Trying! Doing!

Anything that inhibits your ability or desire to take action is BAD, even if it is well intentioned. Examples include: motivation-driven living, big dreams and expectations, wanting to change your life quickly, and trying to “take massive action.”

Any perspective or strategy that gets you to try is GOOD, even if it is counterintuitive or sounds ridiculous. Examples include: Mini habits, “I’ll just ___”, and having low-to-no expectations and a willingness to try.

There’s a tricky, thin, wavy line between dreaming big and expecting big. If you expect yourself to achieve your big dreams (ASAP!), the resulting pressure can paralyze you. How and why would this paralyze us? Because high stakes situations mean BIG success or BIG failure. Humans fiercely avoid pain and failure, so what seemed like a source of motivation is now a detriment to action. 

Having big dreams is fine. I do best by focusing on small daily goals that align with my dreams. But I haven’t noticed any benefits from “dreaming big” and focusing on the ambitious things I want to achieve. Everything I’ve achieved to this point has come from small, unimpressive training!

By trying to raise my floor, I’ve blown the roof off of my ceiling. My books were all written with a mini habit goal of 50 words per day. My book sales probably put me in the top 5-10% of authors worldwide, which is firmly in “my wildest dreams” territory. Mini Habits was in the top 100 bestselling books in Japan recently. With a goal of writing 50 words a day, I obviously didn’t get here by “dreaming big.”

Is it the same for you?

Every time I let my mind swell with larger expectations, I do less. I accomplish less. I lose power. I stagnate.

Every time I take myself and my goals less seriously, I do more. I accomplish more. My creativity blossoms. I make huge progress.

Here’s a recent example: I brought my laptop and microphone with me on a cruise with the intention that I’d “record the rest of my course’s audio.” I envisioned and expected four hours per day of writing and recording. By day four of the cruise, I hadn’t written or recorded a single word for the course. That’s no coincidence! Imagine if I had instead thought, “I can record a minute of audio today.” That’s extremely doable, carries no pressure, and would have enabled me to train.

Lower Expectations + Commitment to Training = Success

I genuinely want to help anyone who reads my work, and in my experience, this is the secret to a low-stress and productive life. I hope I’ve explained it well enough and worded it convincingly, because to me, it has been THE difference between success and failure, on a micro and macro level. 

This is not something that you learn once and cruise with for the rest of your life. Some might say I’ve “written the book (or three)” on this way of thinking, and yet, I still have to constantly remind myself of it. I find myself procrastinating all the time because I let my expectations swell to paralytic levels. But as with most things, the more you practice it, the more you’ll see its truth and the better you’ll get at it.

The difference between this and many other articles you’ll read is that this is core. Many articles will tell you the importance of action, but then fail to explain the mechanism that makes that possible. The key mechanism that makes you take action is belief that you can succeed. If your goals are small, that makes it so much easier to believe you can succeed. Once your small goals get you to try, you’re in the game! You have a chance to win! If you can chain them together (a la Mini Habits), you’re now training. And the more you train, the higher your floor will be.

The higher your floor is, the higher your ceiling will be. Having a high floor isn’t just for “catching you” when you fall, it also serves as a powerful, dependable base for launching into space.

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