[It’s] not easy to find the balance, for if one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.
—May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I’ve had some interesting conversations with people online after publishing last week’s post, The Five Habits of Sane Writers. Several people asked about how lowering expectations fits with having a big vision to work towards (something I wrote about in my article How to Imagine the Best Possible Life, published on Nina Badzin’s blog).
Isn’t it okay—good even—to have big hairy audacious goals?
Absolutely. I’m holding onto my vision of writing books for kids AND having a thriving family. Having a vision makes it easier to work toward our goals, even when the present is difficult. The psychologists who did the Best Possible Self study—where people wrote about their best possible future self—discovered that those who envisioned their ideal future felt an increase in positive mood, were better able to set and achieve their goals, and were more self-disciplined. On top of that, they felt happier and had fewer health complaints. Wow!
As a writer, it is crucial to have a long-range plan. You need to know where you want to be in five years so you know what to write now. If a writer plans to make a full time income from writing in five years, she may want to develop relationships with editors and other clients now. Or, if a writer hopes to write novels full time in a few years, he might take a writing class or work on a short story. As writers, our vision will determine how we spend our daily writing time.
When it comes to balancing vision and expectation, we need to accept that there will always be a gap between what we hope for and what’s happening now. If there isn’t a gap, then we need to dream bigger.
When I talk about lowering expectations, I’m not talking about compromising or “downgrading” our vision or dream for ourselves. I’m talking about “lowering expectations” as a tool to help us cope with the reality of daily life, thrive in the moment, and move boldly forward. Here are five situations when lowering or dumping expectations can support you in accomplishing your goals AND staying sane:
1. Lower your expectations when they’re unrealistic!
Here’s what I said last week in my post:
When I write my life vision, I repeatedly imagine myself penning a bestselling, award-winning novel for kids in addition to running a thriving business, enjoying a perfect family life, and having the time and energy to run a marathon.
There are days when I actually wake up believing I can do all that in one day. Then, a few minutes into my writing time, one kid asks me to pack their lunch while the other reports that the dog is puking. I’m learning that it’s unrealistic for me to expect to write for several hours, see clients, exercise, and enjoy relaxing time with my (cough) perfect family IN THE SAME DAY. So what do I do? I lower my expectations. I work on my book for 20 minutes instead of an hour. I take a quick run. And most importantly—I try to see the perfection in the reality of my family as they are (not as television tells me they should be).
Action step: If your vision of having the perfect writing life crashes up against reality, don’t give up. Take a small step toward your vision.
2. Lower your expectations when they blind you to your gifts and achievements.
Nearly every day I speak with clients or friends who are comparing themselves to others, moaning about what failures they are, and completely missing all of their amazing strengths and achievements. Let’s go back to my vision of being a “bestselling, award-winning author of children’s books.” I’m not there yet. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. But often, it takes a nudge from my husband or a friend to remember that I AM a bestselling and award-winning author of books for adults. Writers, don’t let your expectations cloud your view of yourself.
Action step: If you’re spending your days talking trash about yourself, shoulding on yourself about not having achieved enough or the right things, it’s time to get real. What have you accomplished? Make a list. (Don’t forget to list all the life experience you’ve gathered up to write about.) How are you working toward your goal? Now kick those crazy “I should have” expectations to the curb and keep working toward your dream.
3. Lower your expectations when they make it difficult or impossible to write. A writer once asked the poet William Stafford, “What do you do when you experience writer’s block?” Stafford said, “I lower my standards and keep writing.” For most writers, the book in our head does not even come close to the dribble that makes it onto the page. When we compare our first drafts with professional writers’ final drafts, we freeze. In order to write forward, we need to take Stafford’s advice: lower our standards and keep writing.
Pro Tip: If some writer tells you that they wrote their novel fast and barely edited the thing, and it rocked, then they are either 1. Insane. 2. Lying. 3. Filled with bionic parts. 4. From another planet. 5. All of the above.
Action step: Stop comparing your first draft to anything! Dump your dream of the perfect book and write. Remember, this is not brain surgery. You can always go back and fix your mistakes.
4. Dump your expectations when you have no control over the outcome. My dream of becoming a bestselling children’s author kind of misses one small detail: I do not control the buying habits of thousands of American children. I can write a great book and I can work like mad to let people know about it, but neither of those actions will guarantee success. Just look at Fifty Shades of Gray—it became a bestseller even though it’s poorly written. And J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous mystery novel Cuckoo Calling sold okay, but until it had her name, quality was not enough to make it a bestseller. See what I mean? It’s a crazy world out there. When you’re worrying over things you don’t control, dump your expectations.
Action step: Ask yourself, “Is this expectation mine to control?” If so, then figure out how you’re going to do it (small steps, please). If not, dump it. If you land somewhere in the middle—figure out what you do control, and do what you can.
5. Dump the expectations that don’t belong to you. Many expectations begin elsewhere and get dumped on us. The expectations that haunt you might really belong to culture, an institution, your great aunt Mildred or that snarky girl you went to high school with. And worse yet, these external expectations might be getting in the way of you achieving that dream of yours. It’s tough to become a chick lit author when you’re working day and night to become partner at the law firm.
Action step: When you’re paralyzed by fear of failure (or success)—take a look at the expectations that are troubling you. Where did they come from? If they do not belong to you, dump them. If they do not lead to your vision, dump them.
Your turn: When else have you found it useful to lower or dump your expectations?