Disentangling Expectations

Disentangling Expectations

I was just re-reading Monday’s post, and feel that I’m starting to wander. I’ve got to regroup; here’s the main issues on my table:

  • To be more productive I emphasize instantaneous feedback in my work, and have been selecting work and social situations that provide this as much as possible.
  • There are so many interesting opportunities for me that I am finding it rather daunting to develop them all. To be pragmatic, I have felt I have needed to lower my expectations of how many I can do at a time. This feels crappy.
  • Intellectually I know that slow-and-steady development will yield, over time, the sense of advancement I want and introduce undreamed-of opportunities; I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. However, I tend to be impatient and the resulting mental stubbornness results in procrastination.
  • Current status: mental gridlock. I’m not getting anything done that I want.
  • Current theory: perhaps I need to focus on both mindfulness and the limits of my current abilities; in short, learn to drive what I’ve got instead of waiting for me to finish building that better race car.

It’s relatively easy for me to rattle off what I’m strongest in:

  • absorbing information to distill principles
  • discovering connections between ideas
  • isolating and categorizing contextual states of understanding
  • presenting insights in visual or written form
  • listening to and leading people to their own understanding
  • systemizing what I’ve discovered and learned
  • coming up with novel approaches to teach what I’ve systemized

This is different from knowing whether I’m “good” at it or not; that means knowing what kind of competitive arena I want to race in. The few that come to mind are graphic design, creative consulting, interactive design, and perhaps systems analysis. However, none of these by themselves create that sense of excitement that I crave. Perhaps what excites me most of all is just the opportunity to learn about things and figure out how to best apply what I learned toward the challenge.

This is a niche category, which means that the metrics are not so clear cut. I need to look at the reasoning behind the goals more closely:

  • The racing metaphor I’ve been using in the past few days would be great if my personal goal was “to be a great race car driver”, because there are simple metrics I can think of to guide myself by: “run the lowest lap time”, “be the first to finish the race”, “perform consistently”. It’s a little more difficult if I said, “I want to be a great designer”, because the metrics are more indirect: “get hired by the top design firms” and “get critical acclaim and recognition from the industry and the media” come to mind. Nevertheless, in both situations the simple metrics belie the intoxicating complexity of differing strategy and tactics that can be designed to reach them. With solid principles, experienced mentors, and great diagnostic tools, the process of learning is fairly clear-cut once you have them in place. I’ll tentatively say the reason behind this type of goal is to pick an area to compete in. Follow the rules, maybe even come up with some new strategies.

  • I have been largely preoccupied with identity over the past two years. I believed that if I knew who I was, then my mission would be clear. What I don’t like about the focus on identity: it makes me more self-conscious, and I think I could use a lot less of that. I’m tired of it. It would be nice to just get lost in something else and still be productive. Nevertheless, I have an intense desire to find my place and my calling. The reason I’m looking for my place is because everything I’ve tried so far (design, programming, management, consulting) has left me unsatisfied, and I have not figured out how to create that niche category that will ensure survival and success.

  • Then there is the joy in the experience itself. Professions like farming come to mind. I’ve never worked on a farm, but I can imagine that the long days that go into growing a crop from seed to harvest require great measures mindfulness and focus. The fundamentals are pretty basic, I would guess, but I would imagine that successful farmers have learned to adapt to the earth and sky, learned to see deeply into their crops and predict the impact of the weather on yield, flavor, and profit. Although it takes a lot of time to grow a crop, I imagine that the activity of farming itself is rich with sensory input. There’s the sun and the rain, the smells of fertilizer and rich earth, the physicality of the labor, and the satisfaction of holding what you’ve grown. The nature of the work takes the self out of the equation, because your attention is on the world and how it responds to your ministrations; it’s interactive. For people who love this–printers who just love the way ink smells, painters who are thrilled by the sight of new tubes of pigment, farmers who love corn–this is a kind of bliss that I have yet to experience.


p>Scope of Competition, Meaning, and Sensuality of the Experience. Perhaps these are the three areas I need to define. But my hour is up; more tomorrow.


  1. +baker 14 years ago

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog. Not many people will fully grasp these concepts at first, but it takes time. Thank you for sharing and being bold to state these things.


  2. Jeff 14 years ago

    Dang David, you mirrored my thoughts exactly with your bullet points.  Though we have different strong points (I couldn’t find my way around a computer with a GPS – probably because I couldn’t figure out a GPS), it’s really cool to me that we have the same emotions and struggles.

    I printed out your blog for my wife to read, so she can understand what I’m struggling with.  You said it much better than I can.  I have three kids and that can complicate the mental direction even further.

    Also, while I’m commenting, I did want to tell you that I’m utilizing your CEO downloads with my department.  Thanks for all your doing.

  3. Mike Walzman 14 years ago

    I know what you mean, about spreading ourselves to thin.  There are so many things to do in this world and when one isn’t going as planned or taking longer than expected, my mind can start to spin and want to quit.  What helps me get back in the game, is to realize why I started this project to begin with, what was my motivation and do I still feel connected with it.  If I still feel it is a worthy cause, then for me I must persist until the wheels fall off or better yet if the car grows wings to fly.

  4. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    “Refuse to Choose” by Barbara Sher—I suspect you’re a ‘Scanner’ and you always will be, and that’s OK.  But it does mean that you’ll always have a bunch of projects on your plate at once, so you need to figure out how to manage that.

    “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olsen—This is a book on the slow-but-steady progress you were talking about.  The trick is to not focus on how far you’ve come (that just gets frustrating) but on whether or not you did something today to make it better.  If every day you get just a tiny bit better, you’ll eventually look back and say, “Wow! I’ve made it a long way.”

    For example, I’ve been working on keeping my temper (I have a tendency to blow my top over tiny things).  If once a day I manage to keep my temper just a few seconds longer than I want to, that’s success.  And day-to-day, I’m not any better than I was.  But since last year, I’m a LOT better than I was.  You just have to count those small victories.

    For your freelancing, I’d focus on helping people.  How can you use those talents you mentioned to make other people’s lives easier?  If you consistently turn out great product and help your customers, getting hired by top design firms will follow.

  5. Amit Patel 14 years ago

    I’ve found that lowering expectations is demoralizing at first. It’s a reminder that I’m not doing nearly as much as I think I should be able to do. However, it’s what broke me out of my mental gridlock. Once I dropped lots of projects, I was able to make progress on the few things I had left.

    I kept asking myself: if I had only one thing to do in my life, would I do it?

    The answer is yes.  Any 1 task on my list I could complete.

    So why is it that when I have 1000 tasks I end up doing 0 instead of 1?

    The solution for me was to reduce the number and size of my tasks until I made progress. Just having those tasks on my plate was keeping me from getting much done.

    I do feel bad about all the things I’m not going to do. But I feel really good about actually getting things done.

  6. Susannah 14 years ago

    Okay, so this is fascinating:  I was reading the last paragraph of this entry, about farming, and saying to myself something like “huh, I wonder when Seah’s going to make the connection to Christianity?” —Because so much of what you;re talking about in this paragraph sounds so much like a Biblical theology of work, and so much of it echoed Jesus’ teachings about how the Kingdom of God happens. 

    So then, when I went further down the page to your previous post re: your friend and talking about Jesus…that really made sense to me.

    The piece that Jesus talks a lot about, and that is there by implication maybe in your post, is the “ingredient” in the fruitfulness of our work that doesn’t come from us.  We can plant, and we can water, but it’s always God who makes our seeds germinate. 

    Keep pursuing these ideas.  You’re on to something here, I think.

  7. Susannah 14 years ago

    Oh, and also there’s a book called “The Renaissance Soul”—I read it about the same time that I read “Refuse to Choose,” that Amanda recommended above, and it’s very similar—both give techniques for dealing with (actually “playing with” would be a better way to think of it) being a chronic multitasker.


  8. Andy Vaughn 14 years ago


    I’ve just started reading your blog, thank you for your open reflection.

    With regards to this post, I think you might want to consider applying the concepts of Agile Development to your goals. Don’t lower your expectations, and don’t start “Yak Shaving.” Keep your goals high, just reduce what you think is needed to achieve them, and then iterate.

    For example, if you want to get hired by a top design firm – go visit the top design firms, meet with the staff, and have a face-to-face session. Maybe it takes sending in your resume every day for a month to send the message that you really want to work for them. Maybe it won’t work the first time or the second, but third or fourth you might actually get a nibble.

    Being afraid is OK; everyone is afraid. Just be the one who is afraid and also acts towards achieving your goals – not one who acts in spite of them.

    Good Luck. And, keep up the good work!

  9. Susannah 14 years ago

    ???YAK shaving???

  10. Andy Vaughn 14 years ago

    Google it :)
    It’s a wonderful new term I learned this year, courtesy of Seth Godin.

  11. Ksenia 14 years ago

    I am new to your blog but I really resonate with this post.

    What came to my mind is this book (and other titles by the author:
    _Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life_ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    I believe that my life path is best served by ensuring that I have “flow” experiences on a regular basis. I think that, for me, experiences that are rich with sensory input are more likely to bring meaning and “flow” to my life. I conclude this reluctantly because a signicant portion of my paid work is computer-based. Things that have added “flow” to my life are:
    – doing field work as a biologist, where I identify plants and hike through nature
    – being a mother…it’s so challenging, but very satisfying