In the 1980s, educator Jaime Escalante taught calculus at one of the worst schools in East LA, with a dropout rate as high as 55%. Escalante and his calculus class turned the reputation of the school around, with a high percentage of his students passing the AP calculus exam.
When a film based on this story came out, Dolores Kohl Solovy and Patricia Brieschkeis wrote, “Our children will meet our expectations. What would happen if we really believed it? If the people who run schools believed it? If teachers everywhere believed it?”
While people’s expectations, and even past evidence, might work against us, we all need reminders to believe. In this post, we’ll look at the label of unrealistic expectations for ourselves (not the ones we set on other people). If you’ve ever said something like, “That’ll never happen for me,” “Why do I even try?” or “I’m not smart enough to do that,” to yourself, this post is for you.
Dealing with distorted expectations
We talk ourselves out of dreams we’ve barely had, probably because we never hear them again after a mere whisper. When a teacher told Di’Zhon Chase she might be able to enroll in a class at Harvard, she reacted with skepticism. Chase tells the New York Times, “Harvard isn’t part of the conversation — you don’t even hear that word in Gallup. It isn’t something that adults expect out of us. I don’t think it’s because they don’t believe in us; it’s just so much is stacked against us.” At his blog, Seth Godin writes:
“When our culture (our media, our power structures, our society) says, ‘people who look like you shouldn’t expect to have a life like that,’ we’re stealing. Stealing from people capable of achieving more, and stealing from our community as well. How can our society (that’s us) say, ‘we don’t expect you to graduate, we don’t expect you to lead, we don’t expect you to be trusted to make a difference?'”
For the first 18 years of my life, I soaked up predestination every Sunday at church. Even when I heard things like, “Do your best and God will do the rest,” I didn’t learn to embrace the paradox. I experienced bouts of extreme optimism or pessimism, feeling like whatever decision I made, God would decide the outcome, which in both cases tended to result in inaction. I either didn’t need to do anything, or I wouldn’t see the point in it.
That’s why for me, one of the most powerful draws of self-help—part of the charisma of the industry—is the promise it makes: if you try, you can change. You can do better. And as a result, you deserve better outcomes too.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of self-help stops there, or probably goes too far and encourages the reader to set an unrealistic expectation that’s beyond their current ability, which could also lead to a creative block. For some people, even just a little bit of belief is enough. Even if it comes from an author of a book who doesn’t know you.
Spend time with people who raise your expectations
A teacher raised my expectations, strangely enough, by teaching me existential philosophy: there was no point to life. The assignment of the class was, thus, to create meaning. It might sound contrived to a skeptic, but it was a great exercise for a group of lost 17-year-olds who didn’t even realize they were lost.
Later on, I’d come across another really fortunate experience. I didn’t get into a program at school that I desperately wanted to, and a more experienced entrepreneur told me that I didn’t have to. There was another path, perhaps a better one, outside of that school. It wasn’t vague; it was specific, concrete, and definitely doable: take the money I saved on tuition, attend conferences, and try to meet the decision makers of jobs directly. That goal had taken up so much space in my head, I hadn’t had the common sense to consider this alternative yet.
My expectations for the rest of my school career were low, but his words and ideas helped me raise it back up. It wasn’t even that he expected me to do it—it was merely a suggestion. But it served as a version of what Tyler Cowen writes:
“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.
This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.”
I can see why it’s writing instructor David Perell’s favorite piece of writing from Cowen. And it reflects what Seth Godin writes, “The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see.”
Gordon MacKenzie worked for decades at Hallmark Cards, eventually ending up with an unusual job title: Creative Paradox. His job was basically to consult with anyone who approached with an idea, and he inevitably told them it was a good idea. In one of my favorite passages in his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which I recommended in my newsletter), he writes:
“Most companies are peppered with people who are very quick to say ‘no.’ Most newly hatched ideas are shot down before they even have time to grow feathers, let alone wings. In saying ‘yes’ to all those who brought their ideas to me, I was simply leveling the imbalance a bit. And it worked. People who have a deep passion for their ideas don’t need a lot of encouragement. One ‘yes’ in a sea of ‘no’s can make the difference.”
“As thoughts grew into ideas, however tentative, however fragile, he recognized that this was hallowed ground. He had such a deep understanding and reverence for the creative process. He understood creating should be afforded rare respect—not only when the ideas were good or the circumstances convenient.
Ideas are fragile. If they were resolved, they would not be ideas, they would be products. It takes determined effort not to be consumed by the problems of a new idea. Problems are easy to articulate and understand, and they take the oxygen. Steve focused on the actual ideas, however partial and unlikely.”
This has a lot of implications for being more creative, and the creative process, as well. One solution is not to make a judgment of an opportunity or idea at all, instead just choosing to delay it until you’re done at least a first draft.
Don’t underestimate OR overestimate yourself
While it’s often important not to overestimate or delude yourself—not to constantly fake it till you make it—more important is not to underestimate yourself. Even if your vision of the future might be considered an unrealistic expectation for now, you need to start gathering the evidence, experiences, and connections you need to make it happen.
Sometimes, even if there’s realistically a 10% chance of success, if it’s important enough you should give it a try. Be optimistic, but also honest with yourself. Keep the important things in mind, and steer yourself to the best outcome possible.
An unrealistic expectation can be a starting point: the next one is to come up with a plan to put the goal into action. Wanting something more than the other person certainly isn’t enough. Doing the things that get you where you want to go is the difference.