Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reasonable Expectations

I think I will declare 2010 the Year of Reasonable Expectations. It begins with my notes in this post about cleaning the dishes when they are used and goes so much farther. See, for several years now, I've battled this feeling that I was not reaching the success or goals I wanted — even if I wasn't always clear what those goals were. In the end, I'd beat myself up over failing to live up to my own expectations.

It was easy enough to blame circumstances for why things weren't working out. Someone else had let me down or something just wasn't right. There were circumstances beyond my control — even if I could just chalk it up to my own failing, there was still a way to make it beyond my control. The thing is none of it was beyond my control. I was just letting myself fail.

Part of the answer for why I let this happen can be chalked up to my upbringing. Garrison Keillor is right when he makes fun of Lutherans for their low expectations — or rather for their (our) expectation that nothing will ever be as good as you want it to be. Growing up with a good core of midwestern Lutheran values on my father's side, expectations remained low. Just do as you will, don't expect too much and get through life was a common ethos. Add to this the expectation on my mother's side that one simply goes through grad school and finds life in academia, and there simply wasn't much training for me on how to take great ideas and make them happen. As a natural dreamer, my response was to cook up grandiose ideas — say, launching a magazine in NYC in 1994 with no money and no backing — and lose interest in them when I started to run into the real problem of making something happen. It was easy then to slip quietly back to what I'd been doing before. This is exactly what I did when the prospect of working on a book and life collided in 2004.

The problem with these goals and others I have in mind is not that they were unattainable. I just didn't know how to attain them. I didn't grok how to set reasonable expectations so that I could methodically get where I was going. It's akin to trying to beat back the clutter that has taken over our house. Looking at it globally and saying I am going to do this, I practically guarantee my failure. It's just too easy to put off the vague parts of the large goal until they become just one more lost opportunity. If, however, I set reasonable expectations — keeping the dishes clean, for instance — I can move on to the next reasonable task once I've consistently met that goal. Or, for instance, if I'm working on a project, it's fair to know what the big picture is, but I can't spend my time worrying about the big picture as I try meet each small part of the tasks at hand. My discipline is weak, and if I do get caught up in the big picture, the risk of stumbling or making excuses is much greater.

I explained to the kid the other day that it was important for us to finish something before we moved on to the next thing. She wanted to know why. I asked her how many unfinished projects/books/ideas we had around the house, and she looked at me sheepishly. The lesson seemed to stick, though, because a couple days later when I asked her to do something else, she said she needed to finish what she was working on first. Remember? she asked.

I will. And now I have to go tick one more item off the list.