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…
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?