The importance of high standards

Published on Sep 27, 2020

This awe-inspiring snippet of wisdom came in the mail the other day, compliments of James Clear's ever-excellent newsletter. The text is a little long, but as an important note to self, I'm pasting it whole here, and then I'll talk about why it's so good:


Architect Christopher Alexander on the importance of high standards:

"In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, “Of course not, that isn’t what I am trying to do. ... I could never do that.”

Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: “That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students.”

Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.

Two things emanate from this changed standard. First, the work becomes more fun. It is deeper, it never gets tiresome or boring, because one can never really attain this standard. One’s work becomes a lifelong work, and one keeps trying and trying. So it becomes very fulfilling, to live in the light of a goal like this.

But secondly, it does change what people are trying to do. It takes away from them the everyday, lower-level aspiration that is purely technical in nature, (and which we have come to accept) and replaces it with something deep, which will make a real difference to all of us that inhabit the earth."

Source: Foreword to Patterns of Software by Richard P. Gabriel 


"High standards" has a bad rep on the street and in the workplace. When it's mentioned it's usually said in a derogatory manner, to someone who's perfectionist and a pain in the ass to work with. But oftentimes, it's said by the very people with low-level aspiration to their work. 

Personally, I've always been more on the "high standards" side, so I might be biased. But really, the foreword was spot on, in that high standards uplift you, your work and everything around you. I had always enjoyed putting in a good piece of work that I'm proud of, and often I find myself going back to re-read or review the work. It's always a delicious experience for the senses and the intellect. Don't you sometimes re-read stuff you wrote years ago and wonder, "Wow, how did I write that?!"

That's high standards.

It's less about making others and the world bend to your will; very little about manipulation and control; not much about anal-retentiveness or obsessive-compulsion. It's about you and your reputation with yourself. Meta-integrity, so to speak. It's about how you can look back at stuff you did like you're looking into a mirror, and being able to proudly whisper an affirmation to yourself, that you did good, even if you're much stronger/better/smarter now. 

But of course, by high standards I mean with all things in balance and nothing done to the extremes. High standards brought to extreme becomes stubbornness and lack of flexibility. Grounding high standards with a healthy dose of reality always helps. Kind of like "rational optimism".  

But then again, high standards itself is already so rare in this world, that having some extreme expressions of it won't hurt. Better that than the drudgery and shame of the low bar.