Coincidentally, I've recently finished reading "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. It wasn't one of my favorite books, but I'm glad I read it. I only mention it to clarify that, despite the title, the rest of this post is not at all intentionally related to the book. These are some of my thoughts after reflecting on my past successes and failures and their relation to expectations of me regarding those subjects.
I've been struggling my way through a difficult period, and that has caused me to reflect on my life until now. There was a time not long ago that I felt like a complete failure. It was overwhelming and very new to me. Into my early twenties, I'd only known praise for my achievements and my innate talents, and I'd been able to avoid (being aware of) failing hard enough to damage the image that praise had protected. So when I was at the bottom looking to climb my way back, I was navigating uncharted territory and I felt lost. During the same time, those I usually looked to for advice had important concerns of their own and didn't need a heavier burden.
To better understand how I might find success again, I searched for patterns in some of my previous achievements that I may follow as well as patterns in failures that I should avoid. A few interesting things occurred. First, the patterns I recognized weren't at all like what I had expected. The result of that discovery gave me a liberating new perspective, and with it I learned of some huge failures I was previously unaware of. Now that I'm conscious of them, I can continue to learn and improve free of mental limitations that had restricted me for too long.
The first achievement I analyzed was school as a child. Interestingly, education happens to be what I consider my biggest failure, but not for the reason I initially thought I had failed at it. I'll discuss that further later. This achievement happened in the 4th grade. Before that, I was an average student at best. I was better than most of my class at math, but average or below in other subjects. Our 4th grade teacher did something that I'd seen no other teacher do. She offered an award certificate to the student with the highest grades in the class each quarter. For some reason, when I saw the student receive that award the first quarter, I decided I wanted to earn one. So I made a real effort to improve my grades, and it worked. Both that previous student and I had tied for the highest grades the second quarter. I continued to improve, and I easily won the final two awards. My grades remained all A's (>= 92%) for the rest of my elementary and high school education.
I'd always enjoyed multiple sports growing up. One sport that really intrigued me was hockey, but there were no hockey teams in my area. I bought gear anyway, and practiced alone on the pavement or ice depending on the time of year. I wanted to become a good hockey player, but I had nobody to play with and thus compare ability to. Finally, a city about an hour away from us got an ice rink, and was starting a hockey team. My parents didn't have the time to drive that far for practice after their work every night. So I was out of luck. I decided I'd play hockey on a team anyway, so I talked three friends into buying sticks (they already had rollerblades) and staying after school one day to play on the pavement at the playground. We were terrible, but we had a good time and decided to try it again. It became a regular event a couple nights per week, and others became interested when they heard us talk about it at school. It grew to a regular group of about 10-20 people, and eventually moved to weekends only when we started playing other high school sports. When playing pick-up hockey later with some of the players on that team from the city an hour away, I realized I had become quite good at hockey in our own unofficial league.
As a freshman in high school, my dad suggested I try tennis. I had never played before, but I gave it a try. I was terrible at first. Half of the new players on the team were already very experienced, but even in the group of first-timers I was below average. Throughout the first season, I wasn't good enough to play ranked matches for the school, but I steadily improved beyond the other new players. By the end of that season, I was even better than most of the new players that had previous experience. The next year, I was on our school's third-ranked doubles team. We entered our regional tournament at the end of the season without any expectations of success, and lost our first match. We went on to win the next eight in a row and secured a place at the state tournament. We won a couple matches, but didn't rank very well at state. The next year we easily made it back to the state tournament where we won a few more matches.
We continued to improve and were expected to do well at state our senior year. It happened that the school with the best player in our division had a foreign exchange student that was also a great player. They put their top two players on a doubles team and made the foreign exchange student their top singles player to ensure a team victory at the state tournament. Everyone expected that doubles team to easily sweep the other teams. When we met them early in the tournament we had a great match. My partner and I really enjoyed ourselves, but we lost with a close score of 6-4, 6-4. Our match had attracted quite a crowd, and that team didn't lose another game to any other team winning every match 6-0, 6-0 and winning the tournament.
Throughout elementary and middle school, I was about average in popularity. Unfortunately, I didn't put more energy into topics that interested me most in school, and getting A's didn't require a lot of effort. I decided I wanted to improve my popularity. While I don't consider this an honorable goal now, it was a goal I had set and achieved. I am proud of how I did it. I was an above average athlete which helped, but I wasn't one of the superstars. I wasn't the most popular kid in the class either. I had simply made friends with students from many different cliques, and tried to treat everyone (regardless of their popularity or seniority) with kindness and respect. In my senior year, the high school elected me as the homecoming king.
My girlfriend (now wife) was a foreign exchange student from Brazil. When I visited her for three months the summer after my first year of college, I learned a few Portuguese phrases. I made little effort to learn more as she would translate for me. Shortly before returning to the US, her uncle asked me if I'd learned how to speak and understand Portuguese. When I politely responded with "no", he replied with only one word, "ignorant". I thought, "Wow, I must be pretty bad at this if non-ignorant people are able to learn the language in three months." When I returned the next summer, I made a conscious effort to improve. I was nearly fluent before I returned.
World of Warcraft
I enjoyed playing World of Warcraft (WoW) from the moment it was released. I wasn't a very good player at first. I was slower than most of my guild mates to reach level 60, and then it took me a while to reach the same ability as the best players in my guild. I used the same strategy to gain popularity within my guild as I did previously in high school, and they chose me to complete the Scarab Lord quest line. It was a difficult quest to complete as many WoW veterans know. Only a few hundred out of millions of players did complete it as it required a lot of effort from an entire top-tier guild.
When the arena system came out in the first WoW expansion, I really wanted to participate, but few other friends in the game did. Our server happened to be part of BG9, the battlegroup with the most intense arena competition, and 5v5 was the hot bracket in season 1 as Blizzard would invite the top 5v5 teams to participate in a tournament for monetary prizes. Though our server was practically unrepresented in such a fierce battlegroup, there was one 5v5 team that was doing alright. Luckily, they were looking for a player of my class because it had an ability that was very useful before Blizzard nerfed it. I wasn't great at pvp, but the ability helped the team, and gave me a short window to improve. When the ability was nerfed, I had improved enough to remain viable for the team. We continued improving throughout the season, and went on to get the gladiator rank given to the top 0.5% of teams. By the end of the season, we were beating some pretty incredible teams (many were later sponsored and played professionally in E-sports tournaments).
Those were the achievements I'd analyzed. I hope some were intriguing to read. Perhaps you've noticed something more, but I recognized a couple patterns. I started out as average or worse compared to other beginners, so I had no obvious "natural talent". Therefore, nobody had any great expectations of me. I erroneously put far too much value in the high expectations of others. For some reason, I didn't really listen to low expectations. I expected to fail along the way, but I'd believe there was a chance for success despite what others believed. I felt free to take on more difficult challenges, and I improved faster that way. I was able to sneek-up on and surge past others who started way ahead of me.
This failure I identified as a result of learning the patterns in my successes. Denial helped me to remain unaware of it until recently. My brother was a great running-back for the football team at our high school. I loved football, and I wanted to be great too. I played it often with friends, and I was pretty good. On the middle and high school teams, I was good enough to play on the starting team, but I wasn't a superstar like my brother. The coaches expected me to become great like he was, so I trained hard trying to reach that expectation. I started to dislike playing as I always feared making mistakes and falling short of my great expectations. That fear drove me to take fewer risks, and most football players probably know that "playing it safe" is a recipe for disaster. I was still doing well enough that the varsity coach told me if I was good enough in the JV games that he'd bring me up to the varsity team. I was a freshman. It was exciting but even scarier; it was a challenge I was afraid to take on. I broke my arm in the first JV game, and wasn't able to play for the rest of the season. When my father suggested I play a different sport the following year, I was secretly relieved to escape all the pressure.
My biggest failure was my education, and I dread learning how many others out there are like me. They're victims of their own unnecessary limitations. Our society and our educational system does little to help break out of (and unfortunately promotes) this detrimental mindset. As you read before, I started to get straight A's in 4th grade. In 5th grade, my teacher wasn't aware that I had improved from B's and C's. She only saw me get perfect grades, thought I was naturally talented, and praised my intelligence. The praise continued until I graduated high school. The only challenge I faced was not by my choice. My father caught me bragging about how easy math was, and asked the school to allow me to take higher level classes before they normally allowed. The school fought it, but my father was strong-willed, and was able to convince them. So I finished the highest math class my high school offered as a junior, and took math classes at a nearby university my senior year.
Toward the end of high school, I was fully convinced that I was extremely intelligent. Not only that, but I had also conveniently forgotten about my average intelligence before the 4th grade. I believed that intelligence was an innate talent, and I was a winner of the intelligence lottery at birth. To protect that belief, I couldn't risk being exposed as having average or lower intelligence in any area. Many teachers and peers thought I was a genius, and they had such high expectations. So any intellectual challenge that I couldn't immediately overcome gracefully, I found a way to skirt around with excuses. Then, it came time to choose a university.
Deep down, I wanted to go to MIT. Its prestige likely influenced me more than it should have, but I wanted to go for another reason too. I still had a spark of curiosity that hadn't been fully smothered trying to protect my image of intelligence. I imagined that spark could really explode into a roaring flame at a place like MIT where there would be so many others smarter than I was, motivating me to improve and teaching me incredible new things. I had a great high school teacher that taught us chemistry, physics, and calculus. I imagined the professors would be brilliant and quirky like that teacher. But then I was paralyzed by fear. "What if I apply and don't get in?" "What if I get in and I'm not smart enough to compete with the other students?" "My facade will be ripped down, and I'll be a failure in the eyes of those with such high expectations." I convinced myself to be safe and choose a university where I had a better chance to get into, and do well at. I failed by not even applying to MIT. I even completed the application and had reference letters ready. I may not have been accepted, but I didn't even try. I'm ashamed of that.
I went to a university in a nice beach town, and gave everyone the excuse that I'd worked hard in high school in order to relax at a college near the beach. In my social bubble at that point in my life, a college degree was a tool used to increase income and validate intelligence. I went through the same motions I did in high school doing enough work to satisfy the professors, but never really digging deep enough even if my curiosity was slightly piqued. I'd research the stuff I really wanted to learn about in my spare time outside of class. I started making a lot of money selling online game items, and that gave me the false impression that making money wasn't very difficult even without a degree. I spent a lot of the money traveling to Brazil, paying for my wedding, and later on rent for an expensive apartment.
I grossly underestimated the amount of free time I'd lose by getting married. My income was also diminishing quickly, so I had to pick up some part time jobs. Eventually, I was learning almost all the material from textbooks while taking on excessive debt for classes I rarely had time to attend. I thought, "This is ridiculous. If I just stop taking on debt and focus on making money, I'll get the income boost I expected from a degree." And I dropped out of college after earning about 100 credits. That was the failure I thought I was analyzing.
I was treated like a failure in my social bubble for dropping out of college, but I was able to shield myself from most of the denigration at first by making a lot of money. When my business failed, I received the full brunt of the shaming, and I felt like a complete failure. While analyzing these failures, I first realized the patterns. Contrary to my successes, the failures started with me believing I had natural talent. When others noticed that natural talent, they had great expectations which I in turn adopted. In an effort to avoid shattering those expectations, I took fewer risks, improved slower, and plateaued at a lower level.
My real failure is that I greatly enjoyed playing football and learning new and challenging things. My great expectations caused me to enjoy them far less. I can finally embrace my curiosity and follow it wherever it leads me in what little spare time I have every day. I've been learning faster and with more enthusiasm than I ever had since the 4th grade. It's invigorating, and I'm embarrassed that it's taken me so long to see this perspective again. I imagine I had it as a child before I knew the meaning of expectation.
Like the great quote from Fight Club, "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.", it was only after I'd proven to be bad enough at a given skill or escaped any expectation of success that I became free to explore it with no bounds, free to improve at any pace, free to take on any challenge, and free to fail. In the past, I allowed the society I knew to control when I had that freedom and when I did not. Great expectations are far worse than no expectations, and low expectations are tragic if believed by those on whom they're placed. I'm finally free of the limits my great expectations had trapped me within for so long.