Raising the bar | Seth’s Blog


That’s not the same as raising the average.

With the advent of the high jump, the idiom raising the bar became well understood: If you can’t jump over the bar that the current leader cleared, you don’t win.

But most of the innovations that change our culture don’t actually increase the simple linear measurements of the bar. They’re more likely to raise the average, to increase the performance of accepted mediocre output.

McDonald’s didn’t raise the bar in terms of the best food it was possible to be served in a restaurant, but they made roadside dining faster, cheaper and more reliable.

AI doesn’t raise the bar for illustration, copywriting or coding. But it certainly increases the average quality of a high school essay or the cheapest photo retouching or programming services.

Autotune can’t compete with Eva Cassidy, but it turned millions of singers into slightly more palatable recording artists.

Two traps worth avoiding:

  1. When something seeks to raise the average, it’s tempting to criticize it for failing to raise the bar. It makes the good a little better, but it doesn’t do anything great. Sure, that’s true, but that’s not what it’s seeking to do (yet).
  2. Failing to see that when we raise the average, it can diminish the breadth of demand for the extraordinary. Plenty of very, very good roadside restaurants were destroyed by fast food joints, because suddenly, good enough was good enough.

The endless cycle of improvement means that every innovation that raises the average creates the conditions for a new sort of excellence. Using these tools, a new standard setter can find a different way forward and create a different way to raise the bar, one that seems obvious after the fact.


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