Balancing Striving with Acceptance
“..for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so..”
– Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
The Reality: We Plan and Set Expectations
We spend a large portion of our lives planning for the future. The human brain functions as a prediction machine continually forecasting what is most likely to happen in the next moment.
We set goals for a desired future state that is better than today — with more money, more enjoyment, more free time, less stress etc. Then we work to make the reality come true.
This applies both to our professional and personal lives — from increased earnings and promotions to enjoyable vacations, better health, and more satisfying relationships.
Our Bar is Set High
Most of us think of ourselves as above average in many of our endeavors. As we build expertise and improve our performance, we surround ourselves with an even more elite group of peers to learn from and motivate us. That makes outperformance much harder.
We want everything in our lives to be above average too. Which realistically is impossible.
The media further feeds high expectations by featuring ‘the best’ or ‘the greatest’ in many aspects of life—business success, top 10 lists of goods and services available, athletic achievements, academic triumphs etc. etc..
Social media posts reinforce the sense that others are achieving at high levels in many aspects of their lives. Most posts focus on only the very good and great outcomes, not the average or disappointing parts of our day.
The Uncomfortable Truth: Disappointment Is Common
When that future we have planned for and dreamt about arrives, the reality often clashes with prior expectations leading to disappointment. Things or experiences might be quite good but not as good as we had hoped. Often below the targets ‘advertised’ to us through images and ratings.
And we control very little. So it is nearly impossible to influence outcomes. Our control is limited to our efforts and our reactions to thoughts and emotions that arise.
We Need Goals
I am not against goals. We need goals. Having goals is important in both our personal and professional lives. Having expectations of ourselves and others is part of being human. In many aspects of life, measuring progress against goals makes a ton of sense, and isn’t something we can or should try to escape from.
The Solution: Finding the Right Balance (for You)
- Embrace realistic optimism. Be positive while still realistic. Set aspirational targets informed by reality. Do an honest appraisal of your starting point. Seek out feedback on performance on similar goals to date (if that data exists.). Research what range of outcomes others have achieved so that you know what the average and modal outcome is. Be honest with yourself on where this particular target fits in your priorities; adjust the metric you are aiming for up or down depending on how important it is to you and how much time you will allocate to achieving it.
- Have a mix of goals. Have some goals that are outcome driven, and thus numerically quantifiable. And adopt other goals that are linked to and defined by your values. By value I mean phrasing goals in terms of your being a certain type of person such as curious, kind, or hard working. By doing this you are able to meet value goals even while potentially falling short of specific outcome goals.
- Mindsets matter. Reframe frequently. The quote from Hamlet is a reminder that we do have control over how we see events—positively or negatively.
Look for the glass half full version of events, without making up things. Remind yourself how far have you come from where you started rather than focusing on how far you fell short of your goals. Take stock of what has gone well rather than what didn’t meet expectations. Often the situation you have now is something you had hoped for in the past, even if you didn’t get everything on your list.
The stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
- Learn from experience. When things don’t work out as you had hoped, look for lessons. What you could do differently (if anything) the next time you are in a similar circumstance. Evaluate the reasons for your disappointment which can help you decide whether to change goals, change processes, work harder next time, or do other things differently.
- Remember that ‘success’ often comes after failure. The life of Winston Churchill is remembered positively today due to his leading the Anglo-American alliance to a triumph over fascism. Less known is that he was someone who was responsible for the death of thousands of British soldiers in World War I as a leader of the admiralty.
I find Thomas Edison’s quote particularly relevant: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Reaching Our Goals Doesn’t Always Create Happiness
Research has shown that when thinking about the future, the dopamine release (which creates positive feelings) happens in advance of the actual event. As a result we are often happier dreaming about the future than when we actually achieve the goal. An element of the disconnect is that expectations can be built up over a longer period of time (hoping and dreaming about what could be and how it might feel) whereas reality is often just a moment. And then, we turn to thinking about the future again, wondering, “What’s next?”
I am reminded of the parable of the Mexican fisherman; a great example of the continual tension between ‘being’ (enjoying today for what it offers) and ‘becoming’ (building for a better future so we can enjoy it more in the future.)
Always planning for the future and the next thing will make us unhappy. And only living for the moment is not really possible unless we have lots of people taking care of our financial and other needs.
The struggle for each of us is to find the right balance between being and becoming.