Benchmarks: friends or foes?

One of the blogs I am following is that of Seth Godin (marketing guru and the author of something like 18 bestsellers). On his blog he publishes short thought-provoking pieces on certain business or people related subjects. Inspired by two of his recent posts today I would like to talk about benchmarks.

But first, shortly about the posts of Seth I am referring to. The first post is “Raising the average”. In this post he claims that “we are each the average of the people we hang out with…”. Thus, in a sense he concludes that we can (should?) be “benchmarked against our surroundings” and that the better the benchmark the better off we are. Moreover, if we continue with the same logic: if we want to improve ourselves we better hang out with “the right people” not only for the sake of valuable contacts, but just – to raise the average.

The second post is “A drop in the bucket”. The main idea there is that “portion control via vessel size is a secret to success and happiness”. To illustrate this, remember that smaller plates make you eat less. Or think about a glass of wine poured into a beer glass – that looks ridiculously insignificant, doesn’t it? In other words, the container matters, because the container is in a way a benchmark.

Both of his posts made me think about external benchmarks and I am wondering if we should avoid or embrace them.

On one hand, we always benchmark. We understand that something is cold, because we know how hot feels. We understand that something is small, because we see it in the context against other objects. In this sense benchmarks are probably unavoidable and also positive, because they allow us better judgement and a full picture. On the other hand, I don’t need to compare to know that something is good. I know it based on my perception, my criteria, not based on benchmarking against something external.

But what about less “everyday” benchmarks like for example professional standards? Likewise, they are unavoidable. You can bend them in certain cases, you can develop something outside the box, you can be a pioneer,… Yes. But if you have decided that you want to be a patent attorney for example, you need to have a certain education, certain amount of years of practice, you need to pass the stringent exam and only then – when your profile and results are successfully benchmarked against the minimum standard – you can call yourself a patent attorney. Are benchmarks like these good to have? Probably. At least others have a certain proof of quality. Not always but in most of the cases.

There are, however, also dubious benchmarks. Seth in his post mentions an example of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are “keeping score on an infinite scoreboard” and that simply drains their energy out. Why so? In a nutshell, infinite or way-too-high benchmarks make you feel insignificant irrespective of the effort. That’s what’s dangerous.

Also, some “societal norms” if used as benchmarks can make you feel pointlessly bad about yourself. I already expressed my highly negative attitude towards these imposed “societal norms” before (here), so no point of repeating. However, what is important to stress, is that in contrast to the professional life where you might have a boss, a professional union or whoever else is defining benchmarks for you, in your personal life it is your choice (so make a wise one!).

And what about the idea of the first post of Seth – what about your surroundings? Is it a valuable benchmark? I believe that the answer is not that straightforward. It is true that successful people tend to surround themselves with other successful people. Yet, what comes first – the chicken or the egg? In other words, do they become successful because everybody around them is successful? Or do they just surround themselves with people who share their perspective or interests?

To draw the line, I think that benchmarks are not to be avoided, mainly because they bring some valuable insights. Nevertheless, if benchmarks are used only for comparison for the sake of comparison with the sole result of making you stressed or feel bad about yourself, what’s the point of having them? I am not talking about professional standards here, more about the proverbial “societal norms”. In connection with them my main conclusion is that: any benchmark you use needs to have crystal clear understanding from your part of why do you need it and what are you going to do with the results of this benchmarking? If that understanding is present, benchmarks can rather be friends than foes.


P.S. I must admit I cheated a bit. There was also another part of the Seth’s quote which I intentionally left out in the beginning of this article. The full quote sounds like this: “we are each the average of the people we hang out with and the experiences we choose”. With this second part of the quote I’d rather agree. However, this is a totally separate (and very interesting!) subject of a discussion.

Another P.S. and if you want to join my secret mailing list (no newsletters, no spam, just some occasional extra from me) click here.


10 thoughts on “Benchmarks: friends or foes?”

  1. I love this particular piece. It is a rather common practice to measure ourselves up to some form of expectation in comparison or contrast to others. The questions and points you make here really leave you wondering just what forms of benchmarking, if any, are really healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! As I also concluded, I do believe that benchmarks might be good, however it must all start with a solid understanding of what is that bechmark you are using, why this one in particular and maybe even the most importantly – and now what? What are you going to do with these results? This is a very interesting topic and I have only scratched the surface, yet I would be glad if I triggered some people to pause and reflect. Thanks again for commenting!


  2. Howdy Maria!

    I enjoyed your post. Benchmarking to measure our progress is a really important concept and can be applied to many aspects of our lives. One place I applied them was as a medical social worker counseling families with members with terminal illness. You needed some benchmarks to help you make emotionally difficult decisions. If you set the marker before the event, you are less likely be derailed by emotion and denial. I couldn’t help but remember those people I worked with using benchmarks to help them cope with a very difficult situation.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for you kind words, Jack! And of course thank you for sharing your thoughts! It must be an extremely difficult setting you are referring to. I bet there should be something to hold on to… Yet I assume that is precisely the situation when benchmarks are understood as to what they stand for and most importantly as to why they are used in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi! Interesting insights! I agree that benchmarks are not to be avoided. I believe it’s just a matter of how we see them. Benchmarks may be seen as merely points of comparison, but they can also be seen as tools for learning. I think the best thing to do is pick up the good practices we see from our benchmarks and learn from them. In the end, we’ll be better persons. (I hope.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! Thank you for your comment 🙂 As I said – as long as you understand what exactly are you using as a benchmark and what are you going to do with the results, benchmarks can be “friends”, stepping stones, learning points, you name it.

      Liked by 1 person

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