When You Expect Nothing, You Gain Everything
Ditching your expectations and redefining your personal definition of success
About a year ago, I ditched all of my expectations and radically modified the way I approached personal and professional success.
I made this change because my life had imploded — both literally and metaphorically speaking — despite the fact that I had accomplished all of my “measurable” and “manageable” goals.
Finally, I asked myself:
If I’m setting and reaching ambitious goals, why is my life still in shambles? Why did I bother to set goals in the first place?
For a period of time, I was (trust me) an absolute failure in many areas of my life, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The more I achieved, the more I realized that my accomplishments weren’t actually making me gain anything, other than checkmarks on a list of arbitrary expectations.
Disillusioned, I set more ambitious goals and came up with more complicated plans that, I hoped, would help me find happiness and success.
I set goals that were neither realistic nor unrealistic, and neither ambitious nor lazy.
- I applied to speak at conferences, expecting that I would expand my professional network.
- I started a consulting business, expecting to pick up a handful of clients each month.
- I wrote an entire novel and expected that an indie publisher, at the very least, would pick it up.
And so on.
The thing is… although I set expectations for myself, my life didn’t change whether I met my own expectations or fell short. Day in and day out, everything was exactly the same.
My life only changed when I ditched all of my expectations and redefined my own definition of success.
At one point, failure really affected me. I hated not reaching a goal that I had set for myself, because I assumed, rather narrow-mindedly, that this goal was the only way to find what I was looking for. I never stopped to consider how I had given up control over many of my goals.
For example, the moment I applied to a conference, I lost control of that goal and transferred it to a panel of strangers who used a checklist to estimate my worth.
The moment I sent my book off to a publisher, I transferred control of my goal to an editor who might not even open the query letter.
The moment I started a consulting business, I transferred control of my goal to someone else. Did these companies even need consulting? Could they even afford it? If not, how is that a failure on my part?
You can argue that it was my job as a consultant to market myself to people who did need my services, or that it was my job as a writer to submit a query that would have been accepted — but that’s not the point.
The point is that my expectations of myself were actually expectations that others would somehow lift me up.
This did absolutely nothing to improve my feelings of self-worth.
So now, I expect absolutely nothing. I have ideas and I have things I’d like to try, but I don’t measure, track, or otherwise obsess over my aspirations. I work hard and I care deeply about everything that I invest time in, but I don’t expect any particular outcome.
For example, I’d like to apply to present at a few conferences within the next year — but I don’t attach any weight to the outcome of those proposals. I don’t have any expectations regarding this idea. No pressure.
I think it would be nice to get a few more bylines, especially in technical content writing, but I don’t expect to. If the stars align, great. Otherwise, no pressure.
Without expectations, every success feels like a happy little surprise. The big successes feel like triumphs.
If I judged my success based on how closely my results matched my initial expectations, I’d be a failure through and through. That’s not how success works, and it’s certainly not how we achieve personal growth.
Some of the most meaningful successes are the ones that we weren’t expecting:
- a promotion
- an award
- a new job
- a discovery
- an accomplishment
- any form of recognition by others
These are not things we should expect to accomplish or receive.
In fact, many of the things we expect to do or accomplish are truly a roll of the dice. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we don’t. But most of the time, the result doesn’t make or break us.
This is why I no longer:
- have any rigid routines
- measure or track any personal goals
- collect data regarding my accomplishments
- compare myself to others
- worry about recognition
I just follow my instinct, even if my instinct leads me in a direction other than the one I was expecting to take.
Expectations never got me anywhere. Dropping them did.