What Did You Expect?

Eeyore's in the Alps, Chamonix, France
Eeyores in the Alps...not sure why they're there! Image by nikoretro via Flickr

Our expectations can be our worst enemy.

Here’s a recent blog post by Tim Egan, a former New York Times reporter:

What we talk about when we talk about tomorrow is the great fear that our kids will never find their way, now that opportunity is just another word for no. By we, I mean parents of a certain age.

I fell into one of these conversations a few weeks ago with a mother of two grown children, both boys, both graduates from terrific universities, both shackled to college loans as heavy as a ship’s anchor.

Her sons jumped from commencement to the real world full of springy confidence. But now, two years after graduation, after hundreds of rejections, after their resumes bounced back like boomerangs to the head, they were living at home, and every day brought another dent to their self-confidence.

“What do I tell them?” she asked. You can’t lie. You can’t remind them how special there are, because that was part of the problem. The hope reflex seems phony. I was at a loss to say anything beyond an expression of sympathy.

Later, though, I thought of something obvious: self-worth should never be tied to net worth.

I grew up in a family whose unspoken rules included:

Don’t ask for help. We won’t lend you a dime. Don’t show weakness. Or fear. Or doubt.

i.e. Don’t expect much (of us)!

I also learned, age eight, in boarding school and summer camp, (the isolation wards of privilege), to keep most of my feelings, certainly the darker bits, to myself.

I’m not an Eeeyore, who thinks everything is all going to turn out really badly.  But I do, given this lousy economy that just won’t get better any time soon, expect the wolf to appear at the door, metaphorically speaking. My husband and I are 54, have no advanced degrees and still both work in a field — print journalism — in total chaos.

If we don’t expect some ugly moments ahead, we’re not paying attention!

I didn’t used to think like this.

I moved to the United States from my native Canada in 1988, filled with optimism and excitement at this most excellent new adventure. I was blessed with relative youth and a good education, smart, skilled, healthy and hardworking.

My expectations, then reasonable enough, included: my career would, as it had, continue to thrive, I’d quickly and easily make good new friends, I’d build a supportive professional network and my fiance and I would marry and enjoy a long life together. Without those, would I have left everything I knew behind?

How tough could it be?


I arrived just in time for the first — of three within 20 years — recessions, the first then the worst-ever in my field. The New York Times then offered two full pages every single Sunday of classified ads under my heading, “editorial.” Within a few short years, that shrank to a dozen at most, usually three or four. So I cold-called more than 150 people, trying to win my first local job.

I finally found one after six months; today that would be quick. Then, it was a soul-searing eternity, one that deeply dinged my initial self-confidence. It was not a fun job or workplace, and paid $5,000 a less a year than I had earned in Montreal two years earlier.

That vaunted American upward mobility? Not so much.

I married a physician in 1992, legitimately expecting a long, shared life of material ease: travel, a larger home, comforts we’d both worked hard for. Instead, he was out the door within two years, re-married within another year to a woman whose salary was four times mine.

Thanks to a pre-nup I’d demanded, (after examining New York’s medieval family law provisions for a woman with a college degree and no kids – i.e. nothing!), I was able to remain in my home.

The guillotine speed and brutality of New York’s labor laws — employment at will — left me stunned. Workers were, and are, utterly vulnerable to the tiniest whims of their bosses, who fire anyone they please as quickly and often as they order a deli sandwich, and with about as much consequence.

It’s all been…highly instructive.

Now, I’ve significantly lowered my expectations, and focus on keeping the wolf at bay. He’s not, thank God, howling and scratching at the door, as he is now for millions of scared, angry, broke Americans, bewildered by their ill fortune.

Maybe I can keep him at the elevator…

Here’s Seth Godin, from a recent blog post:

Perhaps it’s worth considering no expectations. Intense effort followed by an acceptance of what you get in return. It doesn’t make good TV, but it’s a discipline that can turn you into a professional.

What do you expect from your life?

Has it changed over time?

10 thoughts on “What Did You Expect?

  1. Marlo Heresco

    I too write for a living. Combine that with moving to another country in today’s economy and it’s been a double-dip of reality. I too grew up without help, without any support whatsoever and was out on my own at the ripe age of 15. I spent most of my younger years angry (aka self-pity). I often thought life too hard and unfair, especially when I saw others with new cars, endless mom and dad credit and no pre-aged stress lines.

    Now as an adult who is obviously out in the real world I am secretly pleased for the ‘no help life’ during those younger years. I appreciate things about myself that have served nothing less than beneficial in this dog-eat-dog world. I appreciate my will and determination; something I’d never had developed otherwise. I appreciate the fact negativity runs off me like water off a duck. I take rejection as productive criticism. I appreciate my calloused hands and slightly stiff fingers. I appreciate myself.

    I look around me now and see, through various social media, that most of my childhood and adolescent friends didn’t really make it in terms of success. Twenty-something years later they still reside in the same town or city in a safe marriage, with a safe job they despise, something they didn’t expect.

    I make one-quarter of the money I was earning three years ago in my large Canadian city. Now, with my significant less amount of earnings, I am completely debt free – something I was not three years ago. Why, because lowered my expectations. Life has taught me that it is a bad plan to have expectations. Instead I have desires, dreams and goals because they will be fulfilled long before an expectation, and when the wolf does come calling, there is no reason to not answer the door.

    1. What an extraordinary story. Thanks for sharing it.

      I was out of the family home at 19. I did have some money from my grandmother, which allowed me to survive, but I remember to the penny what my rent was, then 50% of my small income. Anything I wanted I had to hustle hard for…which made me realize how little I “needed” versus what looked cute or amusing. I put myself through U of Toronto (fellow Canadian!) by freelancing and was writing for national magazines when I was 19, while my fellow students moaned how hard it was to “get a job.” People have told me many times I’m the most determined person they’ve ever met. Maybe. Maybe the people they know had their paths smoothed so much they didn’t need to develop these skills and attitudes

      I lost my staff job at the Daily News in 2006 — and now earn less than a third of that income. So every extra $100 is very very appreciated and welcomed, I hear you!

      Your pride is hard and well-earned!

  2. I graduated from university a year and a half ago, having worked very hard and managed to leave with a top class degree. I knew I was graduating into a terrible recession: news of it had dominated my final year of college. In fact, during that time, I had to switch off the radio because the incessant talk of bailing out Ireland’s banks and bringing forward austerity measures was driving me to madness. Nevertheless, on a personal level I was optimistic. I figured that if I were creative enough, I would find a niche, from which I could work my way up.
    It didn’t happen like that. For months and months I looked and found nothing. I was competing to work for free most of the time. Even jobs abroad didn’t seem like an option, as they were looking for more experience than a recent graduate could offer. I handed resumes into local shops but they turned me away because I was over-qualified and they didn’t believe I would stay. I couldn’t really blame them.
    It was not a case of losing confidence for me, but of losing all sense of entitlement. I remember a sympathetic teacher asking me whether I felt “cheated” by the Government and by my country. I had to say “no”. I had begun to think about my own use to society and the more I considered my background (I had studied Psychology adn English literature) the more I thought that I really had relatively less to offer than the less-educated and more highly-skilled young person beside me.
    I was extremely proud and refused help from parents and my sisters, who offered to pay for ‘further education’. As time wore on, I relented and compromised by completing a one-month training course to teach English as a foreign language. I was very lucky that the school where I trained gave me a job after that. The rest of my classmates weren’t so lucky.

    I’m now working all the hours I can and am enjoying it. Though I’m delighted to have finally managed to get an internship with a magazine abroad my attitude has changed: work (in good conditions and with reasonable pay) is a privilege in the society I’ve inherited. As long as I have the time to do the things I love on the side, and to live with modest comfort around the people I love, then anything more will exceed my expectations. I’m still at home at age 24, but that in itself has been a learning experience.

    1. Thanks for your story…I really appreciate the details, and knowing readers here can hear from people worldwide of all ages.

      I admire your willingness and ability to be flexible, and to value what you have. I’ve always been very proud and private about struggles — my new book, “Malled”, has elicited some powerful replies because so many people, as I did, are taking jobs far below their qualifications. I sold clothes for $11/hr. in a suburban mall to people who (why?) immediately assumed I was stupid and uneducated because why else would I be there? I speak French and Spanish and when I did so they’d look at me in disbelief. It was a searing lesson in what we “expect” from one another, that anyone serving us must be “less than.” Not so. Very much not so in this economy…

  3. I could definitely relate to the way you were brought up, I was the same with my family. Don’t talk about your feelings, especially the darker ones, no one will ever help you so don’t ever ask for help.

    It’s so difficult out there to find jobs and I was just asked yesterday by one of my clients why I didn’t continue college and finish my Bachelor’s. He seemed to assume that I went straight out of High School into Massage school, when actually I finished college and massage school at the same time with getting my Associate’s degree.

    Like the grown children the mother was talking about, I did not want to be buried in the debt of $30,000 or more with going further after my Associate’s. And, to also have a degree I couldn’t use while my massage diploma and license I’ve been using since I got out of massage school.

    I’m not exactly an Eeyore person myself either but with how things have been doing with jobs and all that you gotta be prepared for anything that is thrown at you.

    1. I think part of the problem is that many people were wandering in a little dream-cloud (created by artificial access to credit and the fantasy they would retain their jobs, let alone with raises.)

  4. You know how much I enjoy you and what you write and I see your point. However, I stress with my child, my wife and my friends, to see the pain of life as normal not abnormal. Each of us thinks that our suffering is unique hence the question, why me. But although we may suffer in different ways, we all suffer. The pain of the rich man hurts as much as the pain of the poor man. It may stem from a different cause, but real it still is. My 26-year-old daughter elevates every problem to a crisis. Tear flow and anger ensues over things I would not even rank on a the scale of real problems. We all hurt. The key has to be, as I said above, to see it as a normal part of life. To see it as abnormal brings us to an attitude of self-pity and hurts our ability to function. If we look at it as normal–not pleasant and certainly not wanted, but still as much a part of “real” life as every bit of happiness–then we can attack the problem and not be defeated by the misery it brings. No one gets a free ride in this life. If you live long enough, the hurts pile up. They cannot be avoided. They can, however, be dealt with in a manner that does not make you put a gun to your head.

    1. I agree completely!

      When I pose a question like this — and am as personal about my own story — it’s meant to elicit conversation and feedback, not approval or hand-holding. I’m grateful for what I have, know better than many people what &^%#@ life can throw at you (much of which I have never mentioned here; being a crime victim 3 times, etc.) and how, as Buddha said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

      I know that dear friends and a loving husband will help me, please God, get through whatever tough stuff shows up. Plus my own resilience.

      One thing Jose and I share is an utter impatience with drama. No time or bandwidth for it, in one another or people we know. So I imagine your daughter’s reactions are stressful.

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