Much like personal well-being, career success, personal finance and parenting share one key commonality: Expectations are Destructive.
Expectations: The Seeds of Suffering
When we have expectations we set ourselves up for disappointment. Whether that expectation is: I'll have this particular career trajectory, I'll have this amount of money by this point in life, I'll be able to keep walking when I'm 30, or my child will like to play with this toy in the way I know how; having expectations simply creates an opportunity for life to not turn out as we set our minds to see. When we set ourselves up for this let down we often get upset, disappointed in ourselves or others, and perceive some kind of gap that needs to be addressed.
It's the possessing of these expectation that is the problem. What actually happens is simply life. What we expect from life causes our suffering, and often imposes that suffering on others who may not meet our expectations.
Four areas where expectations have led to suffering in my life:
I was one of those annoying people in college and graduate school who knew exactly what I wanted to do, had a clear path of doing it, and was simply working my way toward that goal. In the process I passed by potentially hundreds of signs for alternative choices because I was set. I expected a certain outcome, was working toward that outcome, and had every expectation I would achieve it. To go into specific detail, I wanted to work for NATO to stop all future wars in Europe, and potentially the world. I expected to be able to do that. I earned fellowships to get me to that point. I took jobs that built toward that future. I got to the NATO policy office at the Department of State, only to discover: I hated working there! Working all day, then staying until 3am to get a cable out to Brussels just wasn't my idea of a life. Wearing a suit in order to work like that was far worse! And the cable itself wasn't anything I created, but simply captured language from higher-ups in the State Department who told me what to put in it, and then had to be agreed to by all of the other agencies before it could be sent (hence the 3am thing, as there were little NATO nuggets all over the DC area awake and communicating at 2am to debate language for guidance to our representatives at NATO to present the next day at the meeting in Brussels.) That was not the life I wanted!!!
Once I realized this I went into a career tailspin out of which I'm only just emerging. Over the ensuing 13 years I've worked in Vietnam helping remove unexploded bombs, done a lot of willy-nilly stuff to earn a paycheck, and finally came to what I realize is what I wanted to do all along: Teach History and write. (You can read my writing here. I write personally emotional flash-fiction to enjoyably teach people to avoid the wanton waste of war.) What's fascinating for me about this career journey is that I'm literally right back where I was in early high school when I declared I wanted to teach history as a career. This was before my parents told me that would be a waste since I was destined to change the world, and before I ever heard of the War in Bosnia which sent me down the path of wanting to end all war. Funny thing is, my ultimate goal has remained the same, I simply addressed it incorrectly by believing I could end war by working for the U.S. Government and NATO. Quant huh!
It took more than 20 years of meeting, confronting, being disappointed by, dealing with, and then recovering from the expectation to change the world before I could achieve the thing I wanted to do in the first place, which may, in its own way, at least help the world, so that's good enough.
Let this be a warning to you and anyone you know who's so targeted in their career: Look around and be open to what's actually happening rather than simply trying to meet your, or worse someone else's, expectation. You may be missing great opportunities for the sake of a goal you don't even REALLY know you want.
Very similar situations arise from personal finance and financial planning. Most of us were raised by Boomer parents who stuck it out at jobs they didn't want for financial security through pensions, or Boomer parents who never got their act together to even achieve that kind of financial status. Between the two, our generation walked away with the expectation that we were going to do better than our parents, and that since we were special and super smart, we'd be set by the time we turned 40, if not earlier.
As many of us round 40 we look around and see few of us did achieve this outcome. Most are struggling to figure out what went wrong. And a few of us are looking around to try to figure out why more people aren't calling all of this for what it is: BULL SHIT!
Financial freedom does not come from working. If it did, the phrase over Auschwitz would actually be true: Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free.) Just as this did not turn out true for the camp inmates in Auschwitz, it is also false for all those relying upon it for our retirement planning. The expectation that works makes us free simply enforces indentured servitude upon us as we try to build out the ephemeral retirement which no longer exists.
What does set us free is spending far less than we need, then saving the difference from what we make. That is where our freedom comes. Not from working, but from spending; or to be more precise: NOT Spending.
If we expect the same high standard of living we currently have on a life of borrowed money, leveraged homes, and leveraged cars, we'll have to work all of our lives to get to a point where we may one day be able pay for it.
If we change our expectations, to a life of living frugally, far within our means, then we can stop working or take passion jobs, far sooner because we won't be obligated to anyone else for a paycheck or a mortgage.
It's the expectation that creates the suffering here. Change your expectation, and you eliminate suffering.
We expect our bodies to work. When they don't we're not only surprised, but often upset. Most of us, at some point, come face to face with this expectation-reality mashup. This occurred for me at the age of 26, taking full effect at 29 when I lost the ability to walk. At 26 I was in a relatively minor biking accident that damaged vertebrae in my lower back and messed up a few other things too. By the age of 29 the sciatic pain in my right leg was so bad I could no longer walk on it, and opted for spine-fusion surgery. As someone who had been very physically active up to that point, the accident followed by the decline of physical capability hit me hard. I expected my body to work, and it wasn't working.
To this day I suffer with chronic pain in multiple places due to that experience. This negatively alters my sleeping pattern, prevents physical activities I used to enjoy, and limits my perspective on what I'll be able to do in the future as my body continues to degrade. I no longer have the expectation to be able to walk at any point in life, as I lost it once already. Without this expectation, I am free to plan things now, with the capability I have, rather than put them off for some future point when I may not be able to do them. Demolishing my expectations for physical ability is freeing me enjoy the capabilities I currently have while not counting on them for the future. Since I now expect to have a body that doesn't work, if it so far is working beyond my expected timeline, I win. At some point it will break again, and I'll break even.
Looking at my body, and its abilities, in this way is far healthier for me than the years of being disappointed by not being able to do the things I used to do. Simply changing my perspective helped me see that it wasn't my body that was failing me, it was me who was failing to accept my body for what it is.
Parenting and Playing with my child
Joshua demolishes everything. It's taken me years to come to terms with this. I love to build with Legos, he loves to destroy anything I build with his construction trucks. Same with any kind of blocks, any picture we make together, and to be honest, any built item at all. We spend countless fun hours taking apart old toys, hair dryers, computers, air purifiers, anything that may have wires or circuit boards, or motors in it. We love to demolish things.
Such demolition was new for me. I am a builder. I forgot what it was like to destroy. Yet, looking this up, I learned that destruction is a healthy stage of development for children. Therefore, my expectation that a lego structure, or a block tower I built will last long enough to show it to Mommy is often overtaken by Joshua's desire to destroy it immediately. At first I had a real hard time with that. Now we're meeting closer to the middle as he begins to build things and I accept that what we build will be demolished pretty quickly.
Joshua is teaching me to demolish my expectations in the most literal way possible. Every day with him is a reminder that what I expect and reality are rarely the same thing, and reality will win every time. I can choose to enjoy that reality with him, or I can fight it. If I choose to fight it, we all lose. If I choose to enjoy it with him, we both have a lot of fun. The choice is up to me. We have fun when we take the expectation out of play. I don't always remember, but he's always reminding me.
How I'm learning to eliminate the expectations; creating opportunities for enjoyment of reality:
For several years I took classes on how to do improvisational acting. One of the key components of this education was relearning how to play. What that means is having fun enjoying the process, while not expecting anything particular as an outcome. That is what play with small children is. That is what makes a great improv scene. To be completely honest, I was not the best at improv. I loved it, but I expected too much.
Having taken improv classes, though, taught me many great lessons about being a dad, as well as about life in general. Key to these lessons is:
1. Reality and expectations rarely meet.
2. Demolishing expectations in order to experience the reality of the moment makes for the best experience.
3. How we meet each moment determines if we suffer or not.
Here are some lessons I've learned on how to implement these lessons:
Jan has a motto now of "NO EXPECTATIONS!" If we approach life without expecting anything, nothing will disappoint.
It's hard to eliminate our expectations. Therefore, identify what they are, at least. Once you know what you expect, ask yourself, what happens if these are not met. Then figure out for yourself, am I ok with that? Chances are very good that you will be. In reality, you'll have to be, so this process just makes it easier to face reality since you already mentally visited it.
We have fun when I take the expectation out of the play and just play. Just like in improv, it's not the outcome, it's the process of playing that I'm there to enjoy. Simply accepting it you free yourself up to not suffer through it. You may even find you enjoy the new reality which you didn't even know to expect. Sometimes the most fun is in the surprising outcome, rather than the one you wanted.
What expectations do you have on yourself, your family, your kids and your future?
Are these expectations helping you, or making you suffer?
What are some experiences you've had that you didn't anticipate that turned out better than you expected?