Shift the Criteria

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
7 min readJun 12, 2023

Every Thursday morning, I chant in a room with about 30 other people while a yoga instructor plays a mini pipe organ. We chant words in a language none of us speak, and so our teacher hands out small slips of paper with chant translations so we can rest assured knowing we aren’t chanting something problematic. There are about 10 minutes of chanting, followed by 50 minutes of yoga, and then 10 more minutes of chanting. “Human noises” are encouraged throughout the yoga practice, including loud sighing, grunting, and snorting. I prefer the chanting to the snorting, but I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum.

As my friends would say, I’m a “front-row gal” in group exercise classes. It’s not because I am a teacher’s pet or want to be close to the mini pipe organ. It’s because being in the front adds pressure to avoid slacking off. It also makes it harder to look at the clock because as much as I love my weekly yoga class, I’m also easily distracted. I get most distracted by comparison — is someone’s downward dog more downward than mine? Is everyone watching my pathetic excuse for a seated forward fold? Is my tummy coming out over the top of my pants like a sausage exploding from its casing?

If you focus on anything long enough, it starts to gain an outsized meaning.

The added benefit to being in the front row during yoga is that it makes balance poses a lot easier to hold when you’re not surrounded by a bunch of people toppling over. We’re told to “find a spot to stare at that isn’t moving” — much harder to do when you’ve got unsteady grunters everywhere you turn. All I have to look at is the wall, which is a combo of mauve and beige in the very popular 1990s style of mottled sponge or rag-roll painting.

(Side note: why were we so obsessed in the 90s with ensuring our homes looked like a Dollar Store version of Caesar’s Palace in Vegas?)

As we shift into Tree Pose, I look at the paint and find a random blob on the wall as an anchor. We stay in this pose for a long time. We express our branches, and while trees fall around me, I am rooted firmly. The random blob starts to look like a human figure, morphing into something resembling a cloaked person flanked by two goats. As we shift into Dancer Pose, I momentarily lose my blob and start to panic and wobble. Relief floods over me when I find the goat man again, and I am steady.

I feel ridiculous, turning this blob into something more than a blob. It is a random smear of paint applied 30 years ago. It reminds me of when I was a kid in line at the grocery store, staring at the magazines on the rack by the registers. If there was one magazine sitting all by itself, I would start to cry because I was afraid the magazine was lonely. I would move it covertly to a rack full of other magazines, likely annoying the shoppers who were wondering why there was a random People magazine stacked with a bunch of Good Housekeeping. I was endowing this inanimate object with human feelings. (Note to self: bring this up in therapy next week).

If you stare at something for more than a glance, priorities will shift. You start to rely on it. Attaching meaning to something just out of the sheer force of intimacy is natural. I began to sympathize with people who saw the Virgin Mary on a piece of burnt toast. All of us discover something because we need something. Seek, and you shall find.

How many times have we done this in our lives? The world is full of relationships that survive solely on sustained proximity. You wake up, stare at the person next to you, and think, “well, I guess this is the goal.” Or you make plans with friends you don’t even like all that much because success as an adult is “social connection.” We set metrics for victory based on relative worth.

I ran a race a month ago where I set an arbitrary goal. I missed that goal by 1.3 seconds. What a sliver of nothingness! A microscopic penumbra! In a world of KPIs and OKRs, we set ourselves up for a binary existence: winner/loser, failure/success, good/bad. I know you’ve got spreadsheets of KPIs at your job that determine the value of your work because I have them too. And I don’t know whether I’m setting them based on the values I hold close or someone else’s values I absorbed along the way. Have you ever run in the rain? Over time, you can’t tell whether you’re soaked from sweat or you are soaked from the rain. It all muddies together. Regardless, you’re still wet.

The worst thing about arbitrary KPIs is that one missed target can ruin everything. My front yard is a gorgeous, untamed mess of wildflowers and greenery. I can’t take credit for it because I’m a renter. I love that every spring, a new flower surprises me. This year, a single creamy rose appeared. Last year, some vibrant, fiery orange tulips. But this year, there’s also a giant bald spot — some unidentified weeds are choking the growth underneath the dirt. From a ground cover measurement, my yard is about 80% beautiful and 20% ruined. That’s still a passing grade. And yet every time I come home, I stare at that stupid patch of wasted potential and feel sad.

This week, I looked back at my personal life KPIs for the year. Yes, I developed SMART Goals for 2023. No, this should not surprise you.

If I graded in the binary, my five big goals would be (so far):

According to Goodreads, I’m also 3 books behind schedule for my 2023 reading goal.

To make matters worse, how I wrote my top five goals means that it will be nearly impossible to “pass,” given how much time has already gone by for the year. So, basically, I’m a loser.

Unless, of course, I decided to rewrite the goals and shift my criteria.

In all of our spaces — work, life, love — we have infinite opportunities to redefine success. It’s MORE than OK to say, “hmm, what I thought I knew/felt/believed is not what I know/feel/believe today.” Take my first SMART goal for 2023: “I will write for myself 25 minutes per day.” I have not kept that up. This goal was set with the criteria of productivity, discipline, and rigor. But what if I don’t want to live with those values (which are good ones) at the center of my daily decision-making in this season? Right now, I need grace and space — the grace to change my mind given my circumstances and the space to create when I feel inspired.

What if I was only writing 15 minutes a day, but in those 15 minutes, produced a Pulitzer Prize-worthy piece? Would I have failed?

What if I was only writing 6.5 minutes a day, but in those 6.5, I tapped into something so meaningful and miraculous that it changed my life forever?

Beneath the SMART goals section, my yearly planner has space for “habits I want to make” and “habits I want to break.” While the “want to break” section is a mixed bag of success, the “want to make” section looks really good. This section looks good because the choices aren’t arbitrary; they’re necessary conditions for success. Out of these habits come legitimate, soul-level change that produces flowers from seeds I didn’t even know had been planted. I love surprises.

Of course, making meaningful criteria shifts in the workplace can feel much more complicated. But I wonder if there is more synergy there than we might believe. Chatting with an ex-colleague the other day, we dissected her current job search. She was feeling depressed and demoralized by her prospects. Nothing felt right. As we talked, I realized that everything felt wrong for her because job search filters aren’t based on our personal values. We filter on salary, location, experience level, and degree needed… but we can’t filter on purpose, meaning, or passion.

I asked her to list new criteria for a position that had nothing to do with the standard filters, and this is what we came up with:

  • A sense of doing good in the world
  • Learning new skills
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Growth
  • Connections with people

Looking at the list, it was obvious that this wasn’t just about the job search. This was about who my friend was as a person and how she wanted to define her life, not just her work. It gave me such immense hope that we don’t always have to compartmentalize our KPIs or OKRs. It inspired me to open my own work spreadsheet and figure out how I can ensure that the things I believe in are reflected in how I define success in my job. I know it can feel impossible to change the culture of KPI obsession in our workplaces, but that shouldn’t stop us from pausing once and a while and reassessing whether our goals actually mean anything. Not everything measurable is worth measuring.

At the end of yoga class this week, our teacher told us she was moving to New York City to follow her big dreams. She promised to document her journey in a new blog and asked us all to subscribe, especially (and she motioned to me in the front row) “her fellow writers.” This might have been the first time someone referred to me as a writer in front of a crowd of people I didn’t know. It gave me goosebumps. I felt legitimately thrilled. She didn’t know that I was a complete failure, according to my “be a writer for 25 minutes a day” KPI. All she knew was that I write things she enjoys reading.

I’m going to call that a success.

Originally published at https://elgl.org on June 12, 2023.

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater