What do you expect? Too much — or too little?

For those who celebrated Christmas, it’s often a time of dashed — or dazed — expectations. Some people were lucky to receive any gift at all, while others sulked at getting the “wrong” ones. (Jose, as always knocked my socks off, with a historic photo of Betty Ford, taken by photographer David Hume Kennerly, as my biggie.)

That photo was taken on January 19, 1977, when I was in my third year of university, working already as a freelance photographer and journalist, selling to national publications. I was living alone, on very little money.

At 20, I knew to expect to do a lot of stuff for myself.

What we expect is a fundamental question.

It drives how we see the world and react to it, whether we hunch instinctively in a defensive posture or spring forward with a hopeful smile and the confidence it will all work out, somehow.

Burning Money is Financial Crime and Waste in ...
(Photo credit: epSos.de)

Jose was born to a Mom who never expected his arrival when she was 49, but deeply valued her surprise baby.

So what we each grew up expecting from the world — from work, lovers, friends, family — was in some ways very different. I’ve shown him he can ask for much more than he thinks he deserves, and he’s taught me how to be happy with much less than I think I need to be happy

I like this new blog, The Broke Girl’s To-Do List, for its tart, pull-your-socks-up-ness and its attempt to lower expectations, especially those of frustrated fesh grads in a horrible job market:

I know you didn’t go to college to wait tables, serve coffee, or assist customers in a clothing store (I didn’t either). The hardest part of being a Broke Girl is learning to be humble. You need to continue making money somehow to support yourself- or at least to maintain your savings. Unfortunately, that might mean taking a job you never thought you would need after college.

I know that it might feel like a step down, especially at first. However, these are hard times, and your finances can’t afford for you to hold out for too long.

I am not saying that you need to give up and “settle,” if that’s what taking this kind of job would mean to you. I am encouraging you to remember that 1) doing nothing while continuing to search for dream jobs will look a heck of a lot worse than making productive use of your time and 2) you need to be saving money. Can you tell I’m a big fan of saving money? Maybe it’s because of the whole my-father-is-a-finance-guy thing. But seriously, long gaps of emptiness on a resume look way worse than making an effort to contribute to society, even if it’s not the task you want to be doing.

We have got to stop taking ourselves too seriously, ladies. Tons of hard-working, intelligent men and women are out of work right now as well. Who are you (and frankly, who am I?) to think that you are above anything?

This recent New York Times story really showed how much our expectations, for good or ill, can shape our lives. It follows the lives of three Hispanic girls who all went off to college with high hopes, yet none has yet graduated and some carry shocking debt.

They struggled, but were unwilling or unable to ask for help:

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The American narrative can really be confusing as hell — Do it yourself! Don’t ask for help! All it takes is hard work! Only losers fail! — but those who do best in this country are often those who don’t hesitate to ask for help or more money or more time to finish a paper or negotiate a higher starting salary. So you’ve got to figure out for yourself how to navigate the corridors of power and influence, even if you’ve never seen them before.

Jose and I mentor a few young Hispanic women, students of journalism, several of whom have turned to me for guidance and advice about how to negotiate the balance of love and career, as they face significant pressure from their parents to marry and have children, career — even college — be damned. I’m honored they trust me enough to ask my advice, and I encourage them to kick professional ass as hard as possible, knowing full well this sometimes places them in direct conflict with their culture’s expectations of obedient or admirable Latinas devoted more to family than anything else.

What do you expect from your world these days?

What does it expect of you?

Has that changed in recent years?

Why or how?

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22 thoughts on “What do you expect? Too much — or too little?

  1. Expectations should be something that change as your maturity and circumstances change. I expected nothing from anybody because of how I was raised, where it was a sign of weakness to ask for help.
    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to expect respect and courtesy and also have come to understand that our networks and our communities are signs of strength and prosperity, not of weakness. It’s a privilege to reach a point in life when I can be smart enough to ask for help when it is needed and give help as a matter of practice.

  2. thebrokegirl

    Thank you so much for including me in this wonderful post! Very interesting point that I have not touched on up to this point regarding class distinctions (and even ethnic and cultural barriers) that complicate collegiate and career success. I very much enjoyed reading your take (and that of the NYT) on how these issues are linked.

  3. Pingback: The Broke Girl’s (Blog) Reading List | the broke girl's to-do list

  4. The greatest mistake we make is thinking others’ experiences is similar to ours, even with surface similarities.

    I’ve learned a lot from my Latina and South Asian younger friends, who face much greater pressure to jump into traditional roles than many of the Caucasian women I know. One, with a Phd from a top school, lecturing worldwide in her specialty, has often been reduced to tears by her parents who scorn all her fantastic intellectual accomplishments — because she is not married, pregnant or a mother.

  5. It’s absolutely changed! I was brought up hearing: you can’t make any money at writing, like a mantra ringing through the halls of my university. I’ve since learned that you can’t make a life out of doing something you don’t like.
    My advice to my children is always: “Do what you love, and just keep doing it.”

  6. Too true. It’s just much easier to pay the price (of waiting tables and making coffee) if what you love doing is worth making those sacrifices for. I guess I should have said: Do what you love, and just keep doing it…even if that means you do something else to pay the bills while you’re growing your skills!

    1. It can take a while. And some fields just never pay well, so the decision has to be made (sometimes year after year) what you value most. I live in a small apartment but its low overhead allows me creative freedom.

  7. I grew up simply in a large family with few resources. My mother was a fabulous cook and seamstress. Her thriftiness kept us afolat. Dad had an incredible work ethic. My early experiences molded me to expect hard work of myself and others. For me, it’s not so much what I’m doing but giving it my all. I’m an all or nothing girl be it work or play.

  8. As a law student, I was shocked at the sense of entitlement that most of my classmates had. Even after graduation many of them expected to land extremely lucrative jobs with little or no experience. I believe this expectation was one of immaturity and fantasy. Now, especially in this economy, more than ever, everyone has to work harder and longer no matter the letters behind your name.
    Be thankful you have a job and it’s ok to say “I don’t know,” just find out the answer. Buck up!

    1. I think it’s a function of how much attention lawyers seem to get in the media. People assume it’s lucrative, as do I, I guess…we hear of first-year grads getting $160k to start (?) and that is a lot of money!

  9. Another thoughtful post that reminds me of my mom. Here motto is “good enough.” It’s not settling, but accepting. All your dreams and goals don’t come true, and that’s okay. I, on the other hand, tend to have quite lofty expectations — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

    1. Being a perfectionist can make life miserable. I know this firsthand.

      “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” That’s a really good motto….just get ON with things and some will work out well and some won’t. It’s always a percentage.

  10. My expectations have changed and changed again. Just now am I coming around to say it’s ok to have expectations of life for myself again. Timely post. And I love that Betty Ford photo!

  11. This is really very interesting, and the timing is great because, being Christmas, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year that’s been and the year that will be very shortly.

    Being a white Anglo Saxon Protestant well-educated male living in Australia, I don’t have much to complain about. I’ve worked hard but the opportunities have been there for me. I’m not much of a whinger (at least not publicly!) and I’ve always thought that it’s up to the individual to make the most of what they’ve got and what’s around them (though sympathetic and supportive governments have a big role to play here, of course).

    However (there’s always a however, isn’t there), being a writer and involved in the arts more generally, I’ve learned that having the ‘right’ expectations is really important – for success, but also for mental health. There’s a stack of people who do what I do, which, for want of a better term, is contemporary literary fiction, and many of them do it better than me. So the competition is huge and the opportunities do seem to dwindle each year (that’s more a feeling than something that can be based on facts – writing literature has always been an uphill battle, I think). All this means that rejection is more common than success, and recognition – at least the recognition all us writers expect – is very rarely forthcoming.

    So, the beginning of each year I write down what I’d like to achieve, and I try to make it as practical as possible. But I also like to push myself gently, and try to keep raising the bar and have new experiences along this journey (terrible term but it’ll have to do).

    A side note: not having children means that I look to writing to bring meaning to my life. Which might mean that I expect more than if my life was broadly based, if that makes sense?

    1. This all sounds pretty familiar. I often wonder (also not having kids) how much the time, money and energy needed to raise kids — let alone a handful of kids — affects one’s professional or artistic ambition and/or ability to realize it. I certainly put a lot more emphasis on my work, for better or worse, without the pleasures and distractions of having kids and grandkids.

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