The biggest problem in life is the image in our heads of how it should be. (Unknown)
Last December, anticipating an easy hour’s daylight drive to pick up my son from the airport, I was startled to get an e-mail from the ticketing agency saying: He had either missed his flight OR his flight had been cancelled.
Before I launch into anything else here, I would like to point out that one-contingency-fits-all, or more accurately, all-contingencies-fit-one emails are a bad idea. They leave far too much to the imagination and no clear thing the brain can seize on. Had the airlines cancelled the flight? Why? Would there be another? When? Had my son missed his flight? If so, had he been in an accident traveling to the airport? Slept through his alarm? Was he ill?
Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “Why didn’t she just call him?” Well, my son conducts his life not on a smartphone but on a Nook tablet. Don’t ask why. He’s all grown up now, so I just smile and nod. To each his own.
I did, of course, pen him an e-mail. Just as I hit send, an e-mail popped up from him. His flight had been cancelled and his new flight—whenever it left—wouldn’t get in to North Carolina in time to make the original connection to Hartford.
I was still reading this when I got an update from the ticketing agency saying not to worry, his new flight would arrive in time to make another connection. I could pick him up at 12:30 a.m! Yes, thirty minutes past midnight on wintry roads that had thawed during the day and were now rapidly re-freezing. By this time, my son was apparently on the boarding line with his Nook in airplane mode. Silence.
During this entire circus, I doubtless appeared very focused and busy with cyber-correspondence. Inwardly, though, my head danced with images of slick roads and onslaughts of freezing rain, as we risked life and limb to drive to an airport in the middle of the night to meet a flight that my son might or might not be on. And then, either way, drove back home in the wee hours.
To calm myself, I repeated, in mantra mode, two of Thomas Jefferson’s Ten Rules—the two I always invoke:
1. How much pain the evils have cost us that have never happened.
2. Take things always by the smooth handle.
Around 11:15 p.m., just as Ed and I were about to suit-and-boot-up for the mission, I received yet another update from the ticketing agency. My son’s new flight had missed the promised new connection. He was stranded overnight in the airport, waiting for the first flight out, and would arrive in Hartford at nine the next morning.
I was relieved. Laughed loud and hearty. Reminded myself that old Jefferson had nailed it. Paused to reflect that when I was 20, none of this would have ruffled me. We’d have hopped in the car at midnight—what’s a little ice and snow?—cranked up the radio, and gone, probably stopping for pizza slices on the way. Everything was an adventure then, scheduled or not.
In those days, I had few, if any, expectations.
Ay, there’s the rub.
Our Need to Control Outcomes
Several years ago, I wrote about the expectations we have for ourselves—how they tend to be stringent and unforgiving, so that even when we succeed in many areas, we have trouble forgiving ourselves for all the ways we perceive we fall short.
But what about the billions of everyday expectations we have for how things will go? That people or stuff will arrive as scheduled? That a vacation or holiday gathering will go as planned? That we’ll get ten pages done on our book today? That we’ll find the perfect present for our spouse/partner in time for their birthday (don’t worry, Ed, I’m still on the case!)?
The greatest moment on the marvelous TV series House occurred when, after some fiasco or other, Dr. Cameron wailed “But that’s not how life’s supposed to work!” and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House piped up, “Life’s supposed to work?” Ed and I couldn’t stop laughing, and we still toss that line back and forth. But at some level, we also still believe it. I think most of us do. And it zaps our happiness. We’ve got enough bad actors in office all across the globe doing that. We don’t need to do it to ourselves.
Let’s be honest. Life is uncertain. Worse, it’s unfair, meaning we crave certainty to ward off the unfairness. If I cross myself three times, kiss an owl, and turn to the full moon at midnight, everything will be okay. That will be $100 please, and you’ve been suckered.
We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. And sometimes, things just go wrong. But what if we changed one word in that sentence? Sometimes, things just go differently.
The Grand Master Plan
Okay, let’s follow the strands of one classic set of expectations. I call it The Grand Master Plan. It goes something like this:
If I go to college, I’ll get a good-paying job in the field of my studies;
In the course of this job, I’ll receive periodic bump-ups in title and salary;
With a salary that keeps rising, I’ll buy a series of successively bigger houses, drive late model cars, and take exotic vacations, with ample savings left over for a comfy retirement.
Whew! Not expecting too much, are we?
I recently came across an interesting little stat. A survey of some 7,000 college students revealed that they expect to earn $60,000 in their first job after graduation. The reality, however, was a median salary of $48,000 for those with 0-5 years experience. Oops!
And what about that starter home, the first in a line that leads to the 5,000 square-foot mansion with a home theater, built-in pool, and tennis court? Well, millennials are discovering there’s one teensy little problem, or more accurately three BIG ones, with that expectation: Affordability, high student debt, and less loan availability. Oh dear.
I cite these here to illustrate how, when it comes to this or any other Major Life Plan, we may get:
1. The whole shebang.
2. Some of the shebang.
3. None of the shebang. Personally, I wouldn’t put my money on #1. However it goes, life’s highly unlikely to follow the neat script of our expectations, which rarely takes into account impossible bosses, downsizing and layoffs, serious illnesses, nasty accidents, messy expensive divorces, unexpected children, or just plain realizing we HATE our line of work. All sorts of things happen on the bumpy road of life.
It Can’t Happen to Me and Other Hilarious Notions
Even if the whole shebang does seem to be going according to plan, we may be surprised by some of the “hidden costs” our expectations exact. A Bankrate poll found that 63 percent of millennial homebuyers (ages 23 to 38) have regrets about the house/condo they purchased. The biggest reason? They had no idea that owning a home would involve so much money (insurance, property taxes, repairs) or consume so much time (maintenance). All this in addition to the down payment and monthly mortgage which, incidentally, many of them took on a second job to afford. How to cope? Take on a third job? Rob a bank?
Sometimes, things just go differently.
We know this. We see it happen to other people all the time. But there’s something in our Homo sapien genes that just digs in and says It won’t happen to me. Call it denial. Call it stupidity. But it’s there. Googling stuff for my August post, I came across an arresting report about the number of Americans (a clear majority) who now believe climate change is real and will hurt their neighbors and family. Weirdly—and I had to read this twice—these same people don’t believe it will hurt them.
It’s a short hop from expectations to a sense of entitlement.
Life’s supposed to work…
And when, inevitably, it doesn’t, we hyperventilate, suffer disappointment, stress out, and feel we’ve been cheated. All of these are unhealthy happiness zappers. Even at the granular everyday level, and maybe especially there, we get knocked upside the head by the zillions of little things that happen differently from what we expected. Our weekend at the shore gets rained out. Our car breaks down during the morning rush on our way to a job interview.
But if you can keep your cool in the car breakdown scenario, and remind yourself this was a much stickier wicket in the days before cellphones, you could call that employer and suggest conducting the interview via Skype over the phone (while you wait for Triple A). If I was hiring, I’d give extra points for your calm and your spur-of-the-moment problem-solving skills.
For our sanity and happiness, we need to stomp out this “life’s supposed to work” myth. To be rocked by every little deviation from the expected, it’s like death by a thousand cuts. So, take a deep breath and pledge to ask yourself one simple question when things take a different turn: Would I be so unhappy about X if I wasn’t expecting Y? Short of life-threatening catastrophes, this question is powerfully effective at putting things in perspective.
He Traded in His Suit for a Truck: One Man’s Road to a Happier Life
Some years back, my first husband and I bought a house with an enormous garage—a good thing overall, but that garage was filled with a ton of junk, and part of the deal with the seller was that if we wanted the junk removed, we had to arrange it ourselves. So I combed the newspaper ads and called a kid with a truck. He was a pleasant kid in his mid-twenties, and as we packed and hauled several loads of stuff to the dump/recycling center, he talked about how he got into the moving business. Growing up, he had always wanted to work in a bank. He imagined himself as some sort of bigtime financier, maybe ending up on Wall Street. In preparation, he ticked all the boxes: Went to a good school, got the degree in finance, and was hired by a bank for a management position with solid future prospects.
He hated it. Hated the attitudes, the work, the whole banking ethos. Whatever it was he’d been expecting all his young life from the bank world, reality proved quite different. The upshot? He quit. Bought himself a used truck and started moving stuff for people. He expressed no embarrassment or distress at confessing that reality had not met his expectations. He did not apply the word “failure” either to the outcome or himself. In fact, he seemed very relaxed and happy that he had escaped that life and found something better suited to his temperament.
That kind of flexibility is what we all need. And like this kid, we seem to come by it effortlessly when we’re young. As I said up top, everything feels like an adventure in our early twenties, but it doesn’t stay that way for most of us.
Hey Man, What Happened to the Joy?
So, where does all that joie de vivre, live-in-the-moment feeling go? Why do we seem to grow less tolerant of the unexpected (surprise!) as we age, and more insistent on everything going according to plan?
I tried googling this topic to see what insights the wizards of psychology might offer, but not much popped up, so I will give you my own ponderings
I think when we’re young and our independence is shiny and new, we focus more on the journey than the destination, a thing we may have only the vaguest of notions about at 20. We’re generally open to experimentation—what happens if …? After all, isn’t the journey—the side roads and the unbeaten paths—where all the truly great stuff happens, the stuff that inspires, that feels like living? Why do grown-ups, the kind with 401Ks and 30-year mortgages, tend to frown on going with the flow?
To be fair to, with all the stuff many of us are balancing at 30 or 40 or 50—spinning plates!—job, kids, house, it can feel like we NEED everything to go according to plan or it will all blow sky high.
But it can still blow sky high. Ask the USDA scientists who were told this past July that they had one week to move family and household to Kansas City, Missouri or resign. On top of the logistical challenge this order posed for many of the families, the scientists had to cope with what the American Federation of Government Employees has called an apparent “attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”
Being told you have one week to transplant your household across country or resign is a HUGE surprise. Fortunately, most of our “unexpecteds” are much less life boggling.
How Do We Live Without Expectations?
The short answer to that question is probably “much more joyfully.” More freely, more creatively. We could recognize and seize opportunities as they arise if we stopped insisting that something work exactly this way!
Say, you’re serving a sit-down dinner for eight——but then the stove dies, and you blow a gasket. Rant against the injustice of life, break down weeping, take a sledgehammer to the stove. All of the above.
You dreamed of dazzling your guests with your award-winning Beef Bourguignon Well, the reality is it ain’t gonna happen, so are you going to have a meltdown and cancel, or are you going to chill and order take-out pizzas OR run to the store for something you can throw on the grill OR take everyone out for a curry? And laugh with your guests about best-laid plans.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I bought a book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Great title. The authors knew they would corral about a zillion pregnant women with that one. But only now, many years later, can I give you the true answer to that question: Expect anything because anything may happen.
I repeat: We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. But within that, we wield enormous power. It’s not that everything “happens for the best.” It’s that things happen and we can make the best of them, or not.
As my pal Jefferson said: Take things always by the smooth handle.
You’ll avoid the splinters.