Realistically High Expectations, Part I

Realistically High Expectations, Part I

Last week I made the connection between how I “drive” myself poorly with how unskilled drivers run terrible laps at the local Go Kart track. My expectation was that the vehicle–myself–is infinitely fast, instantaneous in response, and indestructible, so I mash the pedals and jerk the steering wheel expecting to excel at what I do just because I’m doing it aggressively. So I hit the barriers on the curves, skid out, am ultimately disappointed with my performance because I’ve not learned to recognize the limits of the vehicle. However, I know that a skilled driver can exact a thrilling experience with the same cart and track, because he/she knows how to drive to the limit: they’ve studied the dynamics of the track and know the parameters of the cart; their performance appears unworldly to us noobs. Our expectations, as drivers both of go-karts and our own lives, are out of whack with reality.

So how did our unrealistic expectations come to exist? I blame the instant-fix mentality that pervades our daily lives, catering to our appetite for gratification now. I suppose it’s not really our fault, as instant gratification is wired into our primitive brains; the idea that things can and should be powerful and easy has been a long-standing technological trend. We love the idea of wielding magic wands, guns, and iPhones; we just need genies in bottles, infinite rounds of ammunition, and server-side programming to complete the fantasy. In the case of the iPhone and thousands of other amazing products, that fantasy is our reality.

The Industrial Revolution taught us that hard work can yield to the efficiencies of mechanical mass-production, and in the subsequent shift to the consumer-driven economy we’ve been conditioned by advertising that we should benefit from this. The emphasis has shifted to granting us incredible powers over our lives, so long as we constrain our actions to that which technology and commerce has been able monetize. And advertising reinforces this message of push-button, wipe-on wipe-off ease. We have a plentiful supply of magic bullets supplied to us by hucksters, and we’re all too willing to believe that we’re capable of directing our fire with competence.

Redirecting Expectations

I’ve been noticing over the past couple of years just how impatient I am, and I had adjusted my productivity strategy to include more instantaneous feedback to help maintain motivation and interest in longer-term tasks I treated my lack of patience as character flaw inherent to me, and figured it was easier to just work around it. “I’m not great at being mindful and being focused”, I told myself.

I thought I had an intellectual understanding of what that was, but in reality I didn’t; I confused the results of mindfulness and focus with knowing what it was. My attempts to be mindful consisted of removing distractions, simplifying and shortening task lists, and telling myself that it was OK to do so. I attempted to work within what I thought I could muster, and to some extent it did work in that I felt better because I’d lowered my standards. But this is not elevated consciousness; it’s working within what I thought I could do. And although this has led to an increased sense of well-being, lowering my standards is a cop-out no matter how I spin it. If I’m not making the changes I desire, I am really just coping with my lack of fulfillment, telling myself that it doesn’t matter as much as I thought. On the race track, this is the equivalent of driving very conservatively and slowly, making sure that I do not exceed the safe speed and stay within the boundaries. As a result, I can finish the lap instead of wiping out, and I’m alive to tell the tale. Don’t get me wrong…finishing anything is awesome. It just isn’t as awesome as going fast and looking good while doing it. I don’t think anyone who has a dream really wants to settle for doing things half-way, except in a world where expectations are kept low. Bah!

I want to be able to set my expectations high.

I assumed that maybe my goals were unrealistic, and scaled them back. But perhaps that view is too simplistic. A more satisfying model of productivity would incorporate realistic expectations with constant feedback as the high-performing vehicle that we want to be. To deny this desire is to just lie to ourselves. The secret to getting there is to consider what it takes to become a master driver, the mind that guides the actions that extract the pleasure in performance. The limits exist, but perhaps I can make better use of them. So I am redefining mindfulness to mean responding well to the sensory inputs related to whatever task is at hand. And I am redefining focus to being able to consistently detect the conditions of the environment such that I can anticipate what needs to be done. These are skills that I know can be trained in an environment where the number of sensory inputs are high and tangibly-effective process is available; there is no helping it. It comes down, I suspect, to the ability to perceive the inputs in the first place, and then having the guts to push them to see how the next set of inputs will change.

I suspect a lot of our productivity challenges are related to the difficulty in learning how to see.

More tomorrow.


  1. Cricket 14 years ago

    This reminds me of what I didn’t like about Hallowell’s Delivered from Distraction. Instead of reassuring us that people with disordered attention (more disordered than average, that is) could do well by concentrating on our strengths and working around our weaknesses, I read that we may never get over our weaknesses, and may as well not bother trying—hire or marry someone to do that for us. (His earlier book, Driven to Distraction, is the opposite, and gives hope.)

    My approach is to assign different expectations to different projects. Some really don’t merit full effort. Some merit it for different reasons, like a professional portfolio, or personal pride, or maintaining an environment I can work well in. Some can fluctuate with available time. (Housework is a prime example. Keeping my home comfortable and welcoming gives me joy, but if I get busy elsewhere, I know which corners to cut.)

    I like having a variety to choose from. If there’s a heavy-duty project, it’s nice to kick relax with something that doesn’t matter. If I’m stuck with something that just won’t make me proud but still has to be done, I relax with something I can be proud of.

  2. Darren 14 years ago

    I’ve been a meditation practitioner for a long time, and I agree with you that the concepts of “mindfulness” and “focus” are extraordinarily difficult to grok—far more than most beginners can even imagine.

    When you achieve these states, it’s very difficult to describe.  The best estimation I’ve come across came from a mentor of mine:

    Mindfulness is the continual awareness of where you are, what you are doing, and what is going on both inside your own head and in your immediate surroundings.

    Focus is the ability let go of those things you’re aware of, except for one (or a few) that you want to allow to blossom.

    The key is that you don’t stop being aware of things you’re not focusing on, you notice them, acknowledge them, and then let them go.

    When you combine mindfulness with focus, you can achieve the “mind like water” (and ignore David Allen on this phrase, his understanding is incredibly naive)—the state of being fully present in what you’re doing, at the very moment you’re doing it.

  3. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Cricket: I’m really trying to say work with our limitations, which is not quite the same as working around them, which is what my previous strategy was. Certainly different from work to shore-up weaknesses. I hate the idea, personally, of being limited, and actually I sort of reject the idea. However, I know that the amount of time it takes to ramp-up in an area I’m not already gifted will be long…I’m impatient, so maybe the next-best thing is to learn how to drive myself intelligently. Whatever that means. I think the direction I’m moving in is that of learning what the right mindset is. I have it in some instances—discovering connections between things, for instance—and it’s quite raw in other areas, but I think it’s the same thing.

    I think that I’m also coming to the conclusion that sometimes you just have to take that hill, because there’s no way around it. Having too much choice or trying to constantly outflank the position is busy work. I LOVES me those strategems and outflanking maneuvers, and at times it’s the right approach. But at some point, to borrow from Sebastien in The Little Mermaid, “you gotta KISS DE GIRL.”

  4. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Darren: That’s a really great description…I will take it to heart. I’m thinking that I need to learn how to see (i.e. how to be aware) before I can learn to let go of things. Otherwise, I’m just muddling through and hoping I get lucky. As I think about all the disciplines I know that require a strong foundational component to perform at a high level, this commonality is becoming clear. The trick that really interests me is being able to adapt the universal components to the specific strengths of a given individual…empowerment! I’d really like to make that work. It would be my philosopher’s stone.

  5. JB 14 years ago

    I’m particular fond of all your new racing analogies ;-)

    The concept of the Friction Circle has always been one of my personal favorites. The mastery of which will always be something I strive for, both on and off the race track. And the management of which can be quite poetic, even under e x t r e m e circumstances :

  6. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    6 Contradictions to Make you Happier.

    #1 is “Accept yourself, but expect more of yourself”

    I think you have to kind of look at cost-benefit.  If it’s something that’s going to take forever to change, and not help that much, maybe you should just let it be.

    But being more patient would help you in a lot of different areas of your life, not just freelancing.  So it might be worth the effort.

    But in the meantime, you still have to work as if you were not patient, because you aren’t.  So I think working to change your limitations while being as good as you can without it… accept yourself while expecting more.

  7. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    JB: heh, I thought you might be :-)

    Amanda: I think that’s a good outline of the various contradictions I’m facing, but I’m having trouble getting traction on it. I must say, though, that I’m getting a lot of insights from Mihali Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow that might break the cycle of confusion. The underlying salve that is on my mind is that there are different kinds of impatience stemming from different pressures and misunderstandings. So, instead of changing my limitations and standards, I can instead question the validity of my impatience and overcome it. Make sense? Maybe not…but thought I would throw it out there.