Benchmarks – A Love/Hate Relationship

“A woman can’t be too rich or too thin.”

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Recently, OPreach stopped by for a visit to share words of wisdom. For any of you who follow her amazing blog, you will know she has a gift for inspiring reflection.  With one word, she gave me the topic of my next dialogue – benchmarks.

Over the years, I have developed a love/hate relationship with benchmarks.  I use them when I need them; I feel abused by them when they seem to go against me. One thing I am quite certain about – benchmarks rule our lives, from the cradle to grave.  An infant is measured against the height and weight standards, just as adults are placed in the recommended weight categories.  Individual math and literacy scores in grade school are comparable to the annual university ratings that determine the finest school to attend.  Cars, clothes, food and travel can not escape the benchmark trap.

To begin with, let us be very clear on the definition.  A quick Google search provides an abundance of explanations and origins.   According to Wikipedia, cobblers were the first to use the term. The cobbler would place a person’s foot on a bench and mark out a unique shoe pattern; hence, the term “bench” and “mark.”

Here is a condensed description of benchmark:

Noun:  A standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed.

Verb:  Evaluate or check (something) by comparison with a standard: “we are benchmarking our performance against external criteria.”

The inescapable truth, whether noun or verb, is that we are being measured, which makes us uncomfortable, even uneasy.  Our greatest fear – the one we want to ignore – is that we won’t be able to achieve the benchmark that has been set by the values of our social environment.  Are these fears real or simply an invention of our imaginations?  In the next dialogue series, I want to explore whether measurements systems can enhance our lives, give vision to our journey and increase our ability to participate.  I don’t have all the answers, but I know that I have questions.  Perhaps that is all we need to start…

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” 

 Albert Schweitzer

127 thoughts on “Benchmarks – A Love/Hate Relationship

  1. Sometimes it helps to have a line in the sand to help to know the direction to head. Benchmarks for me have always been helpful. Not only in goal setting, but also in learning how to accept less than 100%. Great post Clanmother!

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    • Well said – I like your thoughts on accepting less than 100%. And you are in control of the choice of where to put that line in the sand. You have given me something to think about – which you know, makes me very, very happy…

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      • Thank you for raising such an interesting and important subject matter. I have something to ponder upon now…there is no good or bad answer, or right or wrong answer. I think the thought of benchmark is probably a natural response, when you compare with others. No benchmark is indeed necessary for our own personal growth. And yet, it is there ..no matter we like it or not. It is a philosophical question. Thank you, Rebecca…I feel that I need to read some more literature …perhaps Lao Tze’s Wu Wei . It is too deep for me to unravel…but it raises a very important issue…to be or not to be, that is the question!

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      • Thank you for your insightful comments. We like to categorize ideas into “good” and “bad” so that it will be simpler to understand and, in the end, easier to control our response. I agree, benchmarks are neither good or bad – they just exist, whether bestowed or self-constructed. This discussion is complex, because it is a inward journey. One of my favorite Lao Tzu quotes is: “In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” May it be so for all of us…Thank you so much for adding to the discussion – your thoughts are very much appreciated.

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      • I am embarrassed to say that I have laozi’s Tao de Ching in English but never read the book in Chinese. The concept of Wu wei ( doing nothing) has its relevance here. I love your post as well as all the interesting comments. I will continue to…do nothing…!

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      • I have never read it is Chinese either!! (note to self – study Chinese). I am continually amazed by the knowledge and wisdom of the blogger community. Perhaps, it is because we write our thoughts down, we articulate our understanding, so that it becomes more fully integrated in our everyday experience. Thank you for you contribution – you made my day…

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  2. I like benchmarks.. I have them for myself, for example, in cello, but they’re loosely enforced. If I know approximately where I’m at I know how I’m progressing. If I was “rigid” about benchmarks, I would become anxious and obsessed.. which makes me more anxious and in turn I’d actually begin to perform poorly.. I’d become more neurotic if that makes sense? This is an excellent topic for sure!!

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    • Thank you so much for your insightful comments and for joining the dialogue. It seems that you have found a way in which to achieve balance, which grants you both the flexibility and the ability to adjust as required if the benchmark is unreasonable or destructive. Your comments on anxious and obsessed leading to poor performance resonate in my experience. Remember the “I Love Lucy” episode with the candy – to me that is one of the greatest examples of bench-marking out of control. And it all was because Lucy and Ethel wanted to live up to unrealistic expectations.

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  3. A thoughtful essay Rebecca. I think benchmarks help us set goals and measure progress and success or failure. That’s a plus. But they’re a negative when we use them to compare ourselves against others just for competitive purposes… “Am I making more or less than the average”? “Are my (clothes, car, houses, children, etc.) better than (fill in the blank’s)?”. That’s not productive. Thanks for getting us thinking.

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    • And thanks for adding to the discussion. You are the one who actually got me thinking – it IS all about the comparison, but it must be in how we make the comparison. Who sets the benchmark and why do we believe that we need to meet that specific standard? It seems that there is a decision tree that we go through, even though we may not be aware that we are engaging in an assessment process.

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  4. When I saw the title of your post and the quote, my first thought was, “Ooh, this will be good.” I was right, by the way. I work in an organization where we have a lot of benchmarks and they affect funding. I like to use them myself as directional guides as opposed to strict measures. The danger in relying too much on benchmarking is that we can lose sight of human variables. Sometimes we need to make compassionate allowances and do the right thing for people, and benchmarks be damned! For instance, when my team is working at or over capacity, I know there will be more errors than normal. They still need to be addressed, but in an empathetic way. After all, when I am overloaded with work, I am prone to making more mistakes too. Humans, and organizations, do have limits. And sometimes we just need to shut off our computers at closing time, put that pile of paperwork in the filing cabinet, and head home to bake a batch of cupcakes. Now that’s an area where I’m happily striving to reach some benchmarks! 😊

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    • I love when you stop by!!! Your cupcakes ARE the benchmark!! Thank you for bringing in the workplace, where benchmarks are set with little or no input from the front lines. Rather, they are generally based on a series of inputs derived from past performance that have been tweaked with current economic, market, demographic etc. variables. I like statistics and have experienced the benefit of data analysis. But I agree with you when you speak of “compassionate allowances” and “addressed in an empathetic way.” There must be an escape valve. Overworked means that there will be more errors which can be costly. The key of course goes back to the “funding” issue and our ability to re-frame the conversation within the workplace environment. You are right – humans and organizations do have limits. There is a time to close the work door and head home.

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    • My dear friend, I have wanted to set a match to many benches over the years. 🙂 And then I wonder if I will ever find a place to sit again. You have brought up another good question: do benchmarks motivate? You are so right, plenty to ponder! Thank you for joining the dialogue…

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    • I agree with you wholeheartedly! It seems that I have no problem finding fault with my performance, especially when someone else seems to be so much better than me. When I was in Grade 2, I remember a classmate who sat on the other side of the room. Unlike me, she was organized: her assignments were always handed in on time, she placed first in spelling bees, and never had a hair out of place even after recess. Here I am – after all these many years later, still considering her to be the benchmark student for that year. Any yet, the only one that set the benchmark was me…

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  5. There must come a time in life when we realize that benchmarks are purely that; a benchmark. Not one of us will perform exactly to a ‘benchmark’.! Were we to do this we would be little clones of each other running around a limited world. I believe the only benchmark that is wholesome and good is one that addresses ourselves in our uniqueness. Were I to try to ‘keep up’ with the benchmarks of some of my dancing friends, I would surely be disappointed with my efforts. However, if I use my own experiences as guidelines, with a view to the ‘average’ guideline or benchmark, I will probably be seeing ‘reality’ a little more in its true perspective.
    This will be an interesting conversation, Rebecca…. Good luck with all the various spokes on this wheel; you certainly create some great topics…!

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    • Thank you for adding your wisdom to the discussion. I especially like the way you said “we would be little clones of each other running around a limited world.” In our world, there are forces that would prefer if we behave in a predictable pattern. Not intentionally or for any evil purpose; simply because it is easy to deal with and/or categorize a homogeneous grouping. But our world is full of diversity, even though we see that globalization has heightened our ability to communicate and knowledge-share. I shudder at the bleakness of a limited world. We have so many more possibilities when we embrace our differences. Many thanks for stopping by for a visit!!!

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  6. You wrote very deeply to my soul. Thank you.
    I have a view. We can not answer without question, as we can not destiny lifeless. Life can be better, not only if we refer to the benchmarks​​, but if we have healthy mind and body. So, we should thank GOD if we are born healthy and we keep our healthy … for our mind and body !
    Affectionately,
    Liana

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    • I agree wholeheartedly, Liana. A sound body and mind is the greatest gift that can be given to us by our creator. We live our destinies one day at a time, with gratitude and joyous expectation. And when we can share the journey with others, life becomes even more enjoyable. Thank you so much for your comments – they are very much appreciated. Looking forward to our continued dialogue.

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  7. Fascinating discussion… I’ve always found benchmarks intimidating in theory, but in practise I find them limiting, in that if that’s the benchmark, I don’t have to do more. If there are no benchmarks and nothing to measure myself against, then I just go all out, and probably achieve far more than if there had been a previously determined benchmark…
    I think benchmarks can be de-humanising, in that every-one is expected to conform to a set measure…. whereas human beings are so diverse, that while one is good at one thing, someone else’s strength is completely different…benchmarks can be approximate, but should never be allowed to dominate in the work place. or in life. If there’s flexibility, people can be creative and cooperative, with everyone bringing their special skills to the project…the alternative creates anxiety, depression, and too often competition..

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    • Valerie – you have captured, in a few sentences, the heart of the dilemma. I agree with you completely – benchmarks limit our ability to participate within a diverse and complex social environment. And yet, we are social creatures who want to fit in, be a team player, and be accepted by those who we consider important within our workplace or community. Many times, we don’t even question the logic or the reasons for the benchmark. I especially like your thoughts on how creativity and cooperation allows us to use our unique talents and offer our special skills to a project. And you have brought up the word that I have struggled with all of my life: competition. You have given me another post. Thank you for added your words of wisdom and compassion.

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    • I agree – the comments are extraordinary, the knowledge exchange brilliant. In every comment there is a genuine desire to seek a greater understanding of how we can make a difference – it is a testament to our enduring commitment to community, whether local or global. I really appreciate your visit and your comments! Thank you!!

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    • Your comments and visit are truly appreciated. I am continually amazed by the breadth and depth of the blogger community’s shared knowledge. We continue to learn…together.

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  8. Entirely off the subject!. When my sister and I were very young, my parents ordered most of our clothes from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. (We lived on a mini ranch in central Nebraska in the “30s). When ordering shoes they would draw a copy of our foot on paper and send it with the order so the one filling the order would know what size would fit our feet.. Perhaps they had read about the early cobblers–or did they think that up by themselves

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    • What an interesting story! I am quite certain Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward knew about the cobblers – if they didn’t, they were quite ingenious on how to serve their distance customers. In terms of history, this is just a relatively short time ago. Now, we have computer technology to identify the exact curve of our instep.

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  9. Benchmarks can turn into “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” if I’m not careful. For me benchmarks have to be choices. I’m excited to read The Paper Garden too. I am also reminded that it is never too late!

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    • I love when I can say: did it!! Especially when I wanted to do it! Interesting point about choices. Do we have the power to chose! Now, that it something to consider. HMMMM… Looking forward to your thoughts on The Paper Garden. Can hardly wait to have to book in my hands!

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    • Truer words were never spoken!!! There are so many measurements systems that most times we don’t even know they are in play. Starting with monitoring our weight in the early morning until making certain that our child’s school work is complete at night, we go through a gauntlet. We have nutrition standards, report cards, bank statements – all with their own peculiar, inborn set of criteria. When I think about it, we handle this all remarkably well…we should celebrate our tenacity and resolve!!!

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  10. I love your post (as always) and, I agree, I think benchmarks can be inspirational, but quite limiting as well. I rarely work well with benchmarks and find that by not comparing myself with others or establishing a set goal, I often go in unexpected directions; life becomes a lot more interesting!

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    • You live life well! I agree that when we spend time on comparison, there is little room left for developing our potential. We all work within a timeline that only grants us a certain amount of days. I would rather spend it going “in unexpected directions.” I recently read a book about Nelson Mandala. He always chose the unexpected direction! One of my favourite Nelson Mandala quotes: “We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

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  11. Must benchmarks RULE our lives? I was in a park today, contemplating your post, when I spotted this mark (plaque) on a bench in a very beautiful spot. It reads “In loving memory of Gretta Cooper her family has placed this seat for others to enjoy”. That made me think that if benchmarks could be created (or seen) in the spirit of helping us to enjoy our lives then their effect might be remarkable instead of daunting or stressful. I wonder if the original cobbler’s benchmark allowed HIM(were there any women cobblers way back when?) to realise the joy of a perfect piece of work , and also helped the customer to experience the joy of a perfect fit? Or was the benchmark , even then, just a great deal more pedestrian 🙂

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    • I love sitting on those benches! The long bench in the photo has a plaque that reads – “Monika: The head of an accountant, and the heart of a gypsy.” I knew, when I read that line, that she was a kindred spirit. I think you have the right of it, which goes along with Marsella’s comments about choice. We can chose – we have every reason to chose our benchmarks. In fact, the more I think of it, we can actually challenge benchmarks. I have heard of a cobbler’s wife – so we can safely say that knew how to make shoes. And I would like to think that the original cobber’s bench was well used and respected by the entire community. There is nothing more uncomfortable than shoes that do not fit!

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  12. Wow entering so late in the game after so many of your commenters have said such brilliant things is challenging but I will give it a go. My personal understanding and meaning of the word benchmark has always been about comparisons, whether to my own previous accomplishments or to someone else’s. Sometimes I’ve fallen short and sometimes I’ve succeeded. Benchmarks have always come in second (and I have no idea if this is a good thing or not – just how I am). Before I pursue any given direction I’ve almost always gone to an inward emotional place where I question a goal being set. Many times this emotional scale tips one way or the other. I make my decisions based on inner feelings. I don’t believe I’ve ever done this any other way. My benchmark then becomes defined by an inner balancing system that tracks said goals. I will stop on a dime should I loose inner focus. In summation to me a benchmark is where I personally have fulfilled within myself the latest challenge I have set for myself (as it relates to both my growth and the difference it makes to others). Sorry about the length!

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    • I love the length of your comments! Well said – you have added depth and perspective to the discussion. I agree that the first conversation has to be inward, especially when it comes to comparisons. It seems that we all come to this eventually after having had the experience of falling short of expectations. We are the hardest on ourselves, which works in favour of those that institute benchmarks such as profitability and productivity measurements. I was fascinated by your point about “inner balancing system,” which suggests that you listen closely to your internal voice that quietly and methodologically tracks your progress and then provides a status report. You have given me something to ponder…

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  13. Well Clan,
    I set the computer on scroll to move down your comments section. I washed the car, and the cat, took a nap. Returned to the computer and it had just reached the bottom of your comments section!
    What you seem to be saying, is the greatest achievement in anyone’s life is when they stop seeking personal achievement, and move their focus off self to others?
    Ironically, it is also the only thing that provides meaning and happiness in life. I know this because I was a therapist for 27 years.
    It is counter intuitive but so true. As soon as you really stop seeking contentment/achievement for yourself. Focus on others. You find contentment.
    No wonder so many people follow you.
    Like me.

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    • You always give a lift to my spirits every time you stop by for a visit. Your comments on counter intuitive resonate with me. But I was most intrigued by your ideas on how to find happiness, especially the fact that we must first stop before moving on. While this seems simple enough, it is really a complex idea, because we generally just keep adding actions. Stop seeking “contentment/achievement for yourself” is not an action that is easily given up. But once you do…ahhh. Powerful and life-changing!! You just reminded me of a quote by Buddha: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

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  14. At my age I have fewer benchmarks. I can scan to the past horizon and see benchmarks achieved, exceeded. Some just fell by the wayside – it was determined I was not slated to play first cello with any orchestra in the Northern or Southern hemisphere. Some benchmarks were forgotten and then found again like lucky pennies. They just needed polishing. This will be an interesting discussion to follow. Take care dear one.

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    • Thank you so much for your delightful comments – you gave me a smile at the end of my day. You made an excellent point – retirement and transitions give a different perspective on benchmarks. Perhaps the need for benchmarks may diminish. My father passed away last year – I treasure those last conversations we had. The only benchmark (and I use that term loosely) I had during those moments was to know I was with him, fully present, in the moment. Nothing else mattered, because time was limited and precious. Thank you for stopping by for a visit – I look forward to our ongoing dialogue….

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  15. Not all benchmarks are bad. I have often found them helpful to shake the memory switch a little. And there are times that I look back in life and think I’ve made very few steps in an important direction. Then I think of what I call markers and I see how far I’ve really moved.

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    • I agree wholeheartedly – not all benchmarks are bad. In fact, they are essential. Benchmarks in science, engineering and medicine keep us safe and keep us progressing. Moving forward is vital to our well-being. There are others, however that I question. And it also depends whether you have set the benchmark or if you are expected to reach a benchmark. That I why I have always had a love/hate relationship with them. Thank you for joining the discussion – you always add insight and generate discussion. I hope that you will continue to add your thoughts as I go along in my exploration. Thank you for stopping by…

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      • You’re right, it is amazing. It’s made me think about how many times a day I wish I were thinner or had more money (planning a road trip – 2 weeks through Europe and then 3 weeks round New Zealand) and realised how much that benchmark just sticks.

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      • And that is the crux of the dilemma – we seem to have a propensity to embrace benchmarks even though we know that there is something just a little wrong with our application. BTW – looking forward to following you on your trek across Europe and New Zealand…

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  16. With two young ponytails I am reminded of benchmarks constantly. They can make some parents crazy with worry that their child isn’t keeping up — or bring out their competitive side. I try to take them with a grain of salt but I may not always be 100% successful on this front. I really don’t want to be THAT parent. 🙂

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    • You have brought up a word that I have struggled with all my life – competition. In our world, we have set up our reward system so that the only one that counts is the one that attains the number 1 position. Coming in second or third is an afterthought. And the person who comes last is a failure, of course. We would never want to be quoted on that, but we continue to reinforce this extraordinary and flawed reward system. Our children are introduced to it at a very early age. I have heard young mothers compare children on weight and number of hours of sleep. In grade school, it is who can read first or spell the best. And I can go on about who is the best runner, ballet dancer, or hockey player. Here is a thought. Let’s set a benchmark to determine who is the kindest, the most compassionate, the most generous. I think our world would be different. Thank you so much for joining the dialogue – your visit and insightful comments are very much appreciated. Looking forward to our ongoing journey…

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  17. I deal with this issue for a long time…
    Benchmarking is definetly my problem. Comparing with other people is a cause of beeing unhappy (from my experience). Example from my life: I like being flatterd, but when other person is being flatterd when I’m near I feel jelaous. I’m a person of great selfishness, I know. And from that I’m a step away to be obsessed by thought to be like a person I admire. It’s very common among children, they just need to pretend somebody they like, act like them. It’s all psychological.
    Just my casual reflection 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for joining the dialogue and for providing insightful comments – I appreciate them very much. Your honesty and recognition of the human condition in your own experience is remarkable. I believe that comparison is an excellent tool to achieve learning – learning a new language, dance step, math equation. It is when we take that comparison and add a “judgement factor” that things may go awry. For example, I have learned the dance step (which is a good comparison), but I’m not as good (judgment) as my friend. We love to judge performance, especially our own. I agree – there is a lot of psychology in benchmarking. Understanding who we are is a life long journey. It looks like you are well on your way.

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  18. The Mona Lisa has one of the world’s most complex and enigmatic smiles: though her mouth is wistful, the muscles around her eyes simultaneously indicate a genuine smile.

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    • Well said!!! The Mona Lisa smile is the quintessential measurement for all time. Leonardo da Vinci’s quote on ‘smiles” gives insight into his thoughts: “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

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  19. Society became completely addicted to said benchmarks. And that would not really be a problem if, most times, these “standards” wouldn’t be just ways set by people for people to do nothing else but judge, point fingers and create gaps between individuals.

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    • Well said!!! “Create gaps between individuals.” To me, that is the worst possible outcome. A benchmark is merely a tool that must be carefully managed. Thank you for adding your insightful thoughts to the dialogue.

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    • It still puzzles me too! That is why I am looking more closely into this topic. It seems that benchmarks have the power to either elevate and demean, depending upon how we embrace them. Your comments are much appreciated.

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      • May be you have read this article, which I think is an good example about reducing the benchmarking. My ideal thought about benchmarking is, superficially, like our body who helps us to move with ease, there are bones which are like the benchmarking part, and the ligand and soft tissue, that is the part which is missing, and that our society should think about. In short, benchmarking is only a part of a whole system. Ultimately, even we can make our ‘body’ (society) function perfectly with the soft and hard part, the question is what do we want to achieve in our society, and in life? Success? Enjoyment?Love?

        kc

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  20. So true “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

    Albert Schweitzer

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    • That quote kept me going through some very difficult times. What seems to be the most arduous path often ends up being the one that leads to a greater understanding of how we can participate in our perilously divided world. I am so very glad that you stopped by and joined the dialogue!!! We are on an amazing adventure – looking forward to seeing what is around the next corner.

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  21. Hi Rebecca. I’m slow in coming by here and seeing this blog. Thank you for mentioning my blog in your post.

    Yes, we so often measure ourselves by benchmarks . . . others’ . . . . our own (based on our opinions of others?). And really all that is necessary is to be true to ourselves, to our God, and to others. When we get stuck on benchmarks we don’t notice the landscape surrounding the bench.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!!

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    • I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for your comments and for giving the idea for my next series of posts. I want to explore the idea of being true to ourselves. We believe that others set the benchmarks, but I have a feeling that we are the ones who set the standards. I especially like your statement:”All the is necessary is to be true to ourselves, to our God and to others….” I am enjoying our dialogue – thank you!

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    • I am so glad that we connected – we have much to share along this journey. I don’t have the answers either, but I am going to to some more thinking on this subject. We believe that we have a certain freedom to express our reality in our way, under our terms of reference. However, I believe that we are motivated, influenced, inspired etc by our collective need to be a respected participant in our community. We construct standards by which to measure the validity of our contribution. I am looking forward to our ongoing discussion. Let’s see where the winds take us…

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    • You really are too kind! I am honoured that you have nominated me for Blog of the Year. Thank you so much for creating a remarkable blog that brings the news of right to my computer. I am so very glad that we connected – you have been an inspiration to me on my journey. There are adventures ahead – glad I found a kindred spirit along the way.

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