The Strength of Expecting Nothing and Doing It Anyway


Barry Schwartz believes the secret to happiness is low expectations. Depressing, right? It doesn't have to be.

Psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz says that an ever-increasing world of options also increases our expectations of finding the perfect choice; when in reality, nothing is perfect. The more choice available, the more you search. The longer the search, the more you doubt you found the best possible choice. It's the pain you feel when browsing through Netflix for hours or trying to find a Fright night restaurant with your friends.

You can't get no satisfaction.

In fact, more choice actually hurts our expectations because they are so inflated. Older generations existed in a world of low expectations and still had the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. Now we aim so high that that is harder and harder. And what makes it worse, according to Schwartz, is that in a world of endless choices, we feel completely responsible. If we make the wrong decision, it is our fault because we chose it. Whereas, a world with only one choice or too few choices could mean the world was at fault for not offering more.

The antidote seems clear: choose hard and choose fast. Because if we're able to choose one thing and stick with it, through thick and thin, we might be able to come up with something awesome. And with that brings the next hurdle: "Follow your passion" is bad advice. 

Author of So Good They Can't Ignore You, Cal Newport thinks we're setting ourselves up for trouble with the idea of following our passions. Interviewed on The Art of Manliness podcast, Newport said, "It's so dangerous to just tell people 'Follow your passion' because if you emphasize the match is all that matters then people expect the rewards as soon as they make the match. In other words, they will be conditioned to expect to love their work on the first day at the job if they choose the right job and that's so far from reality that you're really setting up a whole generation for chronic anxiety and job-hopping."

There is a problem with our thinking here. We expect a shortcut if we could just get our minds and schedules right. We expect fame and fortune and everything that goes with it. But we might not be the next Freddie Mercury right off the bat or even ever at all.

You're probably shaking your head in disgust right now. You're mad at the mere suggestion that passion is the wrong pathway. You think I'm writing this to burst your bubble. But it's quite the opposite, I'm saying this to save us. We need to ask the tough questions. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs' fame knows. A fan named Stephen Adams asked Rowe on his Facebook page, "If no one follows their passion, who innovates?" Mike Rowe responded with the hard truth: "Like all bad advice, "Follow Your Passion" is routinely dispensed as though it's wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about? Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?"

There is a bit or a bunch of delusion in the old adage that you can do whatever you want. And sometimes that delusion works to push us further than we expected. The trouble is when we don't have the courage to confront the difficult questions. Why do you do what you do? What are you doing it all for? What's your motivation really?

What happens when life throws you a curveball?

Vice published an incredible story recently about a young man who developed acute schizophrenia. He was perfectly healthy one day and the next he was chalking up some irregular sleep patterns to him hallucinating ringing telephones when none were in sight. And now he is mentally ill and always working to get better. Could he have expected that? Never in a million years. You can't predict the weather as much as you can't predict the future, so the questions remains: why do you think you can predict your passion down the road?

This is by no means a warning to quit on your dreams and abandon your expectations. There are still some great benefits to setting goals and pushing forward. This is just a healthy reminder that reality isn't always as simple as it seems. There is more to a plan than passion. You need to deliver. Back on The Art of Manliness podcast, Cal Newport said, "You have to have something to offer in return. And in the job economy, that's your skills. You have to get good, step one, and then, step two, you have to use that as leverage to make sure you can get lots of autonomy, mastery, and these other traits in your working life."  

Passionate or not, no one can ignore you if you're providing value to the world. How you express it is your choice. Because after all, Barry Schwartz might have a point. You can get better and get going, and just maybe you can end up with a pleasant surprise.