Whenever I deliver one of my Roll Models talks, afterwards I always try to stick around and make myself available to my audience, in case they have any comments to share or questions to ask me. While I always enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories, and I think it is important to connect with my audience in order to develop my craft as a speaker, there is one part of this “meet and greet” process that always makes me a little uncomfortable. When the members of my audience first come up to chat with me, they usually begin by telling me how amazing my accomplishments are and showering me with praise. Now, I enjoy being complimented as much as the next guy, know that I have a lot to be proud of, and am happy that my achievements can help inspire others, yet I still feel awkward when people start gushing over my successes. As much as I appreciate their praise and admiration (and I truly do), it is hard for me to see my accomplishments as these incredible feats of will and determination, because from my perspective I was just living my life and doing the best I could to achieve my goals. As I went through this awkward process during my most recent Roll Models talk, “Beyond Bedside Manner,” I began thinking about how others see my achievements and why I see my successes so differently than them. After numerous hours of letting these ideas simmer in my subconscious and reflecting upon them, I finally figured out this puzzle as to why I see my achievements as far lesser accomplishments than other people do. It turns out, that it is all about expectations.
The way that we view events in our lives, and also the lives of others, is greatly influenced by our preconceived expectations. For example, if you see a frail, weak man with a trache that cannot even drive his own wheelchair, whether it is right or not, you would probably think that he has not accomplished much, lives at home with his parents, and leads a fairly dull life (we all do this, myself included). This is why when I get in front of an audience and begin sharing some of my accomplishments with them, everyone sees my successes as such great achievements, while I see them as a “normal” life. Since my expectations are much higher than the expectations of people who do not know me, we see the things that I have accomplished very differently. As I am writing this now, this whole idea probably seems so simple and straightforward that it is barely worth discussing, and you are likely wondering why I think this revelation is so profound. It turns out, that hiding within this painfully obvious concept is an extremely important life lesson, and I think that the simplicity of this idea is why the immense power of this notion is so often overlooked.
By harnessing the powerful effect that your own expectations can have on you, you can greatly improve your life, or at least the way you feel about it. The usefulness of this idea lies in setting goals for yourself. You are well aware of the importance of setting goals and the positive effect that this can have on your success. As important as it is to set goals for yourself though, the real benefits of this process are only fully realized if you set and pursue them in the proper way, as a means to shape your expectations. Setting goals in the most beneficial way involves two main points. The first key aspect is to set the bar high and not allow the opinions of others to lower your expectations or diminish your dreams. Think about what you want your life to look like in the future and what you want to accomplish to feel happy and successful, and do not let others talk you into lowering your expectations. Remember that these are your dreams and no one else’s, and also that it is your happiness and success that is at stake, so it should be up to you to set the bar as high as you like. After you have set your goals, it is time to employ the second key part of this process, working to over-deliver. Do not merely try to achieve your goals, but instead try to exceed them. If you only try to reach your goal and fall a little bit short, you will see yourself as having failed to accomplish something. However, if you work to exceed your already lofty expectations one of two things can happen, both of which are good. Either you succeed in over-achieving and feel great about your accomplishment, or you fall just a bit shy, in which case you still have likely succeeded in achieving your goal, because you strived to over-achieve. In both cases, you end up reaching the goal you set for yourself, meeting your expectations, and feeling happy about your life. As the great Norman Vincent Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
There are literally thousands of examples from my own life that I could use to illustrate how powerful this process of correctly setting your expectations can be, but I will stop at two. One perfect example of this process is my success in graduating from college. My goal from very early in life was to go to college and get a degree, and given my disability this was setting the bar pretty high. While getting a degree was my real goal, that is not what I was shooting for as I went through high school. I was trying to get into a top-tier university, live on campus, and graduate on time with my piers. And by shooting for the moon, I ended up being accepted to the University of Notre Dame, living in Keough Hall and making hundreds of friendships, and graduating with a degree in mathematics in only four years. While I definitely would have survived with going to a community college, living at home, and doing “just enough,” by striving to over-achieve I was able to gain some incredible experiences and accomplish some great things. And none of these incredible experiences from my life would have happened, if I had not strived for more than my goals and merely been content with “good enough.”
Another prime example of how powerful the process of properly setting goals for yourself can be is my graduate school career. My goal after college was to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree. Instead of merely going for a two-year, master’s degree though, I decided to “go for broke” and pursue my doctorate. After four years at the University of Kansas, I ended up not completing my Ph.D. due to medical reasons, but because I aimed so high I still left KU with a master’s degree in quantitative psychology and achieved my initial goal. While I failed to over-achieve and get my doctorate, I still felt successful because I was able to complete my goal. If I had only been working towards my master’s, chances are I would not have pushed hard enough to finish the degree before my body was unable to continue the rigorous schedule of academia, which would have robbed me of getting to complete my master’s, one of my proudest achievements. By working to get more than I really wanted, I was still able to set the bar high and achieve my dream.
I read an article some time ago about a group of flying trapeze performers. This team of dare-devils was world renowned for their skill and ability, as well as the fact that they performed without a safety net. The journalist writing the piece asked one of the performers about how he mentally handled the anxiety of defying death, and gravity, on a daily basis, and the entertainer’s response perfectly embodies this idea of expectations and goals. He replied that the stress is all about how you frame the event in your mind (set your expectations). If you aim to throw yourself over the bar, even if you fall a little short, you will still hit your mark. He said that he would always try to fly six inches too far, because he knew that he could always get that close to his mark, and in doing so he never had to be afraid of falling. If this process of setting high standards and working to over-achieve can give people the ability to fly through the air 75 feet off the ground without fear, imagine what it can do for you. Take the time to think about what you really want your life to look like and set your goals, no matter how lofty they may be. Do not only work hard to achieve these goals, but instead strive to exceed them in every way possible. I cannot promise that you will always succeed in over-achieving, but you will succeed in your life, if you learn to properly set your expectations. Whether you end up cheating death 100 feet in the air, living a fulfilling, independent life, or something else entirely, you will definitely feel successful and you will definitely be happy, which is all that matters.
Did this article leave you wondering something? Are you curious about a certain aspect of my life? Do you want to know my favorite color? Submit your question to “Roll Models Mail Call,” and I will do my best to answer it in a post.