Monday, May 27, 2013

The Burden Of Expectations

So, I've been listening to Disparate Youth by Santigold on and off for quite some time now.

And obsessing over a few lyrics. The ones that go like:
“Another roadblock in our way.”
“They wanna sit and watch you wither.”
“A life worth fighting for.”

Note: What I’m about to say is just my personal opinion. And probably unwanted advice of sorts. Take it or leave it.

The thing is that song has brought back something I realized fully in a single moment of clarity a few years ago and it’s something I've been wanting to get off my chest for quite some time now.

It’s about expectations and the burden that comes with them. People (your parents, your acquaintances and society in general) expect you to make something out of your life, from the day you are born. Even if no one tells you about it straightaway, it’s there – you can feel it and you can see it in the eyes of the people around you. Unless you are a child prodigy or a pop star who makes it big in your teens or simply have incredibly open-minded parents, the commonly approved standard for meeting those expectations or alternately “success” generally involves studying hard enough, getting decent grades, going to college, graduating and finally getting a job. Not any job at that, a “real” job that pays the bills and gets you a decent place to live in.

But what if you don’t want to get a “real” job? What if your dream is to make something else out of your life? To become someone else who’s not a robot doing that miserable cubicle job? What if you don’t want to go down the beaten path but make up your own? And oh horrors of horrors, what happens if you don’t conform to the expectations that others have of you?

So, my question is: Do expectations really matter?

Right now, general society has evolved in a state that’s clearly performance-obsessed. Everything is about performance. Performance metrics have been developed to measure practically anything. Productivity percentage. Grades. Performance ratings. How high can you jump? How fast can you run? How high are your IQ test scores?

From day one, parents push their kids to try harder, faster and better. They want their kids to perform, to be the very best version of themselves. And that’s not a bad thing. Parents want their kids to succeed because they love their kids, they care about them. But what they don’t realize is that they are setting the burden of expectations on the breakable shoulders of their kids. Exactly how much can those shoulders take, before they cave under the burden? My guess is that it varies because each one person is different.

In the long run that kind of burden can take its toll on you and make you utterly miserable, especially when you find yourself struggling to fulfill them, simply for the reason that you are doing something else rather than what you really want to be doing because you want to meet the expectations of other people (mostly people you care about) and you’re scared to death of disappointing them. And this causes you to stifle your dreams and part of yourself in the process.

And the pressure, the agonizing pressure that comes with those expectations can get suffocating and at times, pretty damn close to unbearable. I don’t know if you’ve felt it, but I’ve definitely felt it.

The reality of today’s performance-obsessed society is that it puts enormous pressure on you to perform and ultimately to succeed. You can’t perform? You’re a failure.

It’s tragic really. The same society that wants us to succeed is stifling our dreams and personal aspirations in its drive for us to meet its crushing expectations. This is a damaged society that we’ve built for ourselves and sometimes, I just wish it would give us the space we need to just…breathe and really be ourselves instead of who it wants us to be.

It’s really where a particular line in that song hit home to me: “They wanna sit and watch you wither.” In some ways, it’s true and as unintentional as it may be or not, that’s what other people really do.

Let’s face it: this is a society with practically zero tolerance for failure. There are people who condemn you the minute you show a hint of failure in whatever you do. And it’s because of this, that people who have dreams of a different life are told repeatedly to face the “realities of life” and get a “real” job and a “real” life.

Well, here’s a reality check people and I’m going to be really really mean here. Someday, you are going to DIE and though you don’t know when it might happen, be sure of one thing: it will happen (that is unless you’re immortal and you glitter in sunlight). It could be tomorrow, it could be in eighty years. Point is you don’t know how much time you have left. Do you want to spend that time living up to the ridiculous expectations of a damaged society or do you want to spend that time doing something that actually makes you happy?

I’m not telling you to screw getting a job and live on dreams and dewdrops. By all means, go get a “real” job if it pays the bills and puts a roof over your head – after all, most of us have responsibilities to fulfill towards someone or the other. But make sure that you can find enough time to fulfill your dreams and that this “real” job doesn’t drive you miserable at the end of the day.

Or even better, find a “real” job that you love. You dream of becoming a veterinarian? Quit law school or that miserable law practice and become a veterinarian because you don’t absolutely need to follow in the footsteps of that high-flier judge daddy of yours. Trust me, you have nothing to prove to the world. Because the world doesn't care.

Dreams matter and they are extremely important. But let me get something straight first. If you want to realize your dream, don’t just sit around doing nothing and wait for destiny to strike. To fulfill your dreams, you have to errr, you know…maybe do something about it (duh). You are an accountant who secretly wants to be a painter? Get out that paintbrush and slap some color on that canvas after you get home from work. You want to be a writer? Don’t wait for that non-existent and completely overrated muse to land on your shoulder (you’re going to be waiting a LONG time) and start scribbling away.

Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness and success and above all, you are responsible for making your own destiny. No one else can make your dreams come true, except you. So, go get it, whatever it is you want to do and SCREW EXPECTATIONS. Because ask yourself this: if you end up completely miserable trying to live up to the expectations of others (including your loved ones), are those people responsible for this? No, of course not. Because it's your life after all. So, own it and make all the hard decisions.

And believe me, there are people out there who expect you to fail, when you’re trying to do something different. But no matter that people tell you that you can’t do it, don’t you quit. Don’t. You. Dare. Quit. Because there’s nothing worse you can do than giving up on your dreams. That’s true failure and not the inability to meet other people’s expectations.

And what about your own expectations? Expectations are going to screw you ten ways to Sunday if you let them get to you, especially your own. So, keep your head down, work quietly and steadily toward realizing your dreams, do the best you can and expect nothing. Shoot for the moon, by all means, but EXPECT NOTHING and you might be surprised at what the universe conspires to send your way.

From my own personal experience, whenever I expected something, I fell short of my own expectations and it crushed me. But whenever I gave up expecting something and just did what I had to do to get there, I went so much further than I could have ever dreamed of.

So, what if you fail? I think it is okay to fail sometimes. And I wish someone would have told me that when I was just starting out in this world as a kid. It’s okay to fail and get back up and try again and again until you make it. Remember learning to ride a bicycle? Failure is after all, a very essential part of learning.

"Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." – Samuel Beckett

And, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

If the tried-and-tested path doesn’t work for you, dare to do things differently. Dare to be different. Just because everyone you know is following the beaten path doesn’t mean you absolutely have to follow it too. You can make up your own path.

Somebody once told me that swimming with the flow is so much easier than swimming against the current, but then again swimming with the flow might eventually lead you toward the rapids where you can so easily drown.

If there’s something that I want you take away from this post, it’s this: don’t live the life that others expect you to live, instead live the life that you want to live. After all, isn’t it “a life worth fighting for”? At the end of the day, it’s about not having any major regrets when the day comes for you to die, as it inevitably will (well, that’s what they say about death and taxes, dontchaknow?).

Also this video, where badass author Maggie Stiefvater shares her insight about writing life and stuff including how being a bad teen helped her get where she is now).

And if you have more time to kill, here is Maggie’s TEDxNASA talk (it really got to me especially when she talks about a visit to an “alternative” school where “different” teens were sidelined by the system as “high-risk-for-drop-out” cases.

And finally, Neil Gaiman's University of the Arts 2012 commencement speech, where he speaks about his experience taking the road less travelled to get where he wanted to be.


  1. Screw expectations and go your own way. I completely agree with this. I thinks it's the reason people with creative jobs have to work harder than every one else--to prove to everyone and to themselves that their job is just as important as others. And I love Neil Gaiman so, so much. He just makes me happy.

    1. Hey Sara :) Thanks for reading my crazy long post. This is something I had to get off my chest before posting the Corridor short (which I will post...shortly).

      Yeah that is SO true - what you said about people with creative aspirations having to work harder. I love Neil Gaiman too - the guy has such a witty way with words and I find his pieces of advice really helpful :)