Tempering Our Expectations

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I am in the process of applying to schools for my second masters, and the other day I heard back from one of the schools that I applied to. Turns out I did not get in. At first, I was devastated that Princeton did not think that I was good enough to roam their halls or learn in their classrooms. They were my number one choice, and for me not to get in made me question whether or not I was pursuing the right thing.

I thought about the months spent preparing my application materials and soliciting letters of recommendations. I thought about the almost four year build up to apply, everything I went through prior to making the decision to do so, and of course I thought about the $70 application fee that I was not going to get back. Nothing about this felt right.

How inadequate am I really?

If they did not want me who possibly could?

Am I making the right decision to go back to school?

How many overpriced pieces of paper do I need?  

These are the questions that swirled in my head as I faced a reality that said “Ken, you’re not good enough”. What made the rejection so devastating was that I did not expect it to happen. I thought my ambitions would be enough to manifest my dreams. I knew I’m not an ivy league student, but after romanticizing the prospect of being one for so long, my expectations ended up not matching my reality.   

All of us have been here before, where something we wanted, something we desired, or at least thought we did, ended up not living up to our expectations. And there is no way around it, or a nice way to say that failed expectations suck. Expectations are paradoxes, and we get trapped in them because of their whimsical nature.

An expectation is a strong belief that something will or should happen. “Willing” and “shoulding” are not pragmatic ways to interact with the world we live in; As my story suggests, ambition alone is not a valuable commodity. So why do we have and set expectations, what benefit do they bring to our lives?

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    Expectations and Aspirations

    We cannot discuss expectations without talking about it’s cousin, aspirations. Just like expectations, we all have aspirations, whether big or small we all do or have aspired for something. An aspiration is hope, and as humans we need hope, its an essential ingredient to life: No hope no passion, no passion no purpose. Our lives coalesce around hope. Hope gives us a reason to get up in the morning when nothing else does, hope gives us the strength to persevere when all we really want to do is curl up into a ball.

    A good hope – a good aspiration, is a lighthouse on the shore of destiny; and a good expectation is the map that gets us there. Expectations are important because they inform our reality. They lay out the ground rules. They tell us all the ways we could possibly get to our destination, and we must decide the path we take.   

    Bad Rap

    Expectations get a bad rap. They are almost synonymous with disappointment. I was disappointed that my scholastic expectations were not met, and that disappointment led me down a rabbit hole of catastrophizing and self-deprecating thoughts. The truth is unmitigated expectations are dangerous.

    If we do not reel in our beliefs of what we think will or should happen we are doing nothing but setting ourselves up for failure. All an unmet unmitigated expectation does is shine a light on our inadequacy. It forces us to rethink who we are and what we value. Because, if we did not get what we thought we deserved, suddenly who we are is put into question. 2nd truth:

    Our value is not predicated on our achievements.

    Stephen Hawking once said:

    “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

    Not getting into the school of my choice was not a reflection of me as a person. This next truth is easier said than done, but we cannot personalize our defeats. In order to set good expectations, we must have a fail forward mentality. Remember, all an expectation is, is a road map to our aspirations; as such, we cannot beat ourselves up just because we took a wrong path. Just because some people got to their destination [aspiration] on the highway does not mean local streets are not a viable option.

    In my case, I had to ask myself, not am I cut out for this, but rather, why did I want to do this there? What was the motive for me wanting to go to that school in particular? Part of mitigating our expectations, is asking ourselves the hard questions about them, including the motives behind them.

    Tempering our Expectations

    Tempering our expectations means we are setting realistic ones for ourselves. The way in which we do that, starts by us knowing ourselves. An interesting habit of mine is every now and again, I will travel without looking up the directions on how to get where I’m going. Sometimes I’ll decide hey I know how to get to my location using a way that I took once several weeks/months ago.

    There is no reason for me to take this ominous way to my destination when I know that I can just look it up; However, as a result of myself being in my own way, I’ll take the route I think I remember, end up lost, and just give up and turn the GPS on anyway. By taking our personalities into consideration while setting expectations, we can better question our motives.

    Another way for us to temper our expectations is to be realistic with our aspirations. Dreams often influence our aspirations. There is nothing wrong with dreams and they are a great way to sustain vitality. And while we should all follow our dreams; we all should also do our part to ensure our dreams have a margin for error less they become a pipe dream.

    To continue with the traveling analogy, sometimes its better not to have an entire trip planned prior to arriving to the destination, or if one does, there should be contingency plans in place just in case.

    A final way in which we can temper our expectations, is by having little to no expectation of other people. People let people down. It’s the number one skill on humanity’s resume. We have a nature of unreliability. Even the most reliable people, are not reliable in every area of their lives. As such, we do ourselves a disservice when we place high expectations on someone.

    So, to summarize, here are ways in which we can temper our expectations and subvert the potential disappointment that comes from setting them:

    1. Understand that expectations are a roadmap not the destination itself
    2. Separate yourself from the failure (fail forward)
    3. Keep going until you get to where you’re going
    4. Be real with yourself
    5. Be realistic with your aspirations
    6. Do not place high expectations on others

    Expectations are important but so is our mental health. Let’s not allow a successful or failed expectation to dictate our value, self-worth, or ability to rise above the odds.

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