What would you do if you had a blank slate, a fresh start, and no-one expecting anything in particular of you?
What would you do if you knew your friends, family and colleagues were guaranteed to be impressed and encouraging?
Depending on your perspective and your current position, those questions could be terrifying. They could also be liberating, helping you rediscover that part of you that still believes in possibilities:
“When I Grow Up…”
When you were a kid or teen, the answers to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” were limitless. My future career plans included “Queen of the world”, aged 3, and later, “An astronaut”, “Prime Minister” and “Best-selling novelist”. Your answers may have been similarly ambitious – or at least focused on things you were passionate about as a child (my dinosaur-obsessed little brother wanted to be a palaeontologist).
Kids don’t worry about things like getting a mortgage, eating sensible meals, and paying the rent. They see adulthood as a place of amazing freedom: when you’re an adult, you can cross the road on your own, buy as many comics as you like, and even eat cookies for breakfast.
Somehow, by the time we reach our early twenties and start on adulthood, this world of vast possibilities has narrowed. We go to college, because that’s what everyone else is doing. Then we look for a sensible, entry-level job, because that’s what everyone else is doing. Pretty soon, we think about buying a house, getting a better car, working towards a promotion … because that’s what everyone else is doing.
What Went Wrong?
Life isn’t supposed to be a dull, day-in-day-out routine where work is bearable and evenings are spent going through the motions: eating dinner, watching television, surfing the net … waiting for it to be time to go to bed, and get up, and repeat it all over again
Life should be an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown, a chance to grow, an opportunity to do something that makes a difference after you’ve gone. One of my favourite books as a child was Ballet Shoes and I still remembering being struck by the desire of Pauline, Petrova and Posy to “get our names in the history books, because it’s our own, and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.” (Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild – Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)
What went wrong? How can you escape from the humdrum life you’ve fallen into, and start living a life that means something to you?
Don’t Let Other People’s Expectations Hem You In
A few folk have no problems with “peer pressure”: they’re self-declared rebels and renegades, forging on in their own direction without any worries about what their dad, grandma, former headmaster or friends from college might think.
Many of us, though, find that other people’s expectations can begin to rule our lives. In some ways, this is a natural thing: as humans, we’re social creatures, and it’s hard to risk being derided or excluded by are community. Some of us are also people-pleasers: as children, we delighted in praise from parents and teachers, and we continue seeking this as adults.
There are a lot of problems with living a life designed to fit everyone else’s expectations of you, though. The top three, as I see it, are:
- You can’t please everyone
- Their expectations may be based on a narrow, inaccurate view of you
- Your values could be wildly different from theirs
1. You Can’t Please Everyone
I’ve always liked this story about “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”:
A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”
So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”
So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”
Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey with you and your hulking son?”
The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.
“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them: “Please all, and you will please none.”
The point isn’t hard to grasp: trying to please everyone is impossible, and will result in failure to please anyone (especially yourself). If you have any experience of blogging or writing for an audience, you’ve probably had the experience of getting glowing praise and damning criticism … for the same article. People don’t always agree.
If you’re trying to live up to all the expectations that crowd in on you (from parents, friends, and society at large) – you’ll end up feeling miserable because you’re not living the life you want to, and you’ll inevitably not manage to meet all the competing demands.
2. Their Expectations May Be Based On A Narrow, Inaccurate View Of You
People make snap judgements in life: they might meet you briefly, and proceed to offer all sorts of advice based on an inaccurate assessment of who you are.
Families often fail to recognise how you’ve changed and grown over the years. They also tend to label you – and it’s easy to end up conforming to these labels because you believe them. “Oh, Bob’s always been the lazy one” or “Sue has her head in the clouds” or “Tom never could focus on anything.”
Frankly, you’re the only person in the world who knows what’s happening inside your head. You might have a huge amount of potential that no-one else recognises. Your parents or your friends might have pigeonholed you – but you know there’s more to you than what they see. Even if you do have plenty of habits and characteristics that you’d like to change, you have the ability to do that.
3. Your Values Could Be Wildly Different From Theirs
To me, this is the biggest problem with trying to meet other people’s expectations: they might have a completely different agenda to yours. Perhaps your dad thinks the most important thing you could do with your life is have a very secure career, whereas you value creative self-expression through poetry or art. No wonder that your dad wants you to “get a proper job – make the most of yourself” – but if you follow his advice to become an accountant or doctor or lawyer, you’re likely to be making yourself miserable.
Sometimes, you need to get clear about your own values and priorities: then you can figure out what you want to refocus your life around. (Tim Brownson helped me with this, I’d suggest giving him a call if you want a hand figuring out what you’re doing with your life.)
Your parents might think you’re crazy. Your friends might laugh at you. Your brother might call you a wishy-washy bleeding-heart hippy. Your old school pals might say you’ve sold out. Don’t ignore their advice … but don’t be afraid of what they think.
Stop Worrying About What Other People Think
One of my favourite book titles is “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – a biographical account of episodes in Richard Feynman’s life. Those words were spoken to him by his wife, and perhaps they carry some indication of why Feynman became one of the best known scientists of the 20th century: he didn’t worry about what people thought of him.
Does your mental soundtrack go anything like this?
- I don’t want to go out tonight, but Marcy will think I’m boring if I stay in.
- I can’t read a personal development book on the train – people will think there’s something wrong with me.
- I’m over-committed already, but how can I say no to John? He’ll think I don’t like him.
- I’d be really refreshed by taking a day off just to play computer games, eat pizza and do what the hell I like … but my partner will think I’m just being lazy.
Just as no-one else in the world knows what goes on inside your head, you can’t lift a flap and peek inside their skull either. It really is a waste of time to worry what other people will be thinking: you’ll probably guess wrong, and (even if they put their thoughts into words, as a negative comment), their thoughts are very unlikely to have any real effect on you.
I’ve often worried what people will think, and how they’ll react, to some action of mine. This has ranged from tiny things (“No, sorry, I don’t want to join that sub-committee”) to huge ones (“Hey mum, I’ve quit my job to freelance”). Time and time again, I’ve found that people always react more positively than I expect.
We can internalise other people’s advice, strictures or warnings so much that it can take a bit of thinking to unpick where they come from. You could be struggling to pay the rent on a place of your own just because your college friends insisted they’d never be seen dead going back to their parents’ home. You may find yourself busy gardening every weekend just because your neighbours have prize-winning rose bushes. Perhaps you even chose your whole career based on what your teachers wanted for you, not what you wanted.
Whose expectations are you living up to? Who are you trying to please? What would you do if you had a blank slate, a fresh start, and unconditional encouragement from your loved ones?