by Daphne Eviatar

There’s a classic Zen story that goes like this:

A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked, “How long will it take me to become a master?”

“Fifteen years,” replied the master.

“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.

The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”

The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.

“Twenty-five years,” replied the master.

“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”

The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”

I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.

Are High Expectations Really Helpful?
There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus telling us that high expectations are important for increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get As and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim that high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and, ultimately, our levels of happiness.

I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.

I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different. It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.

Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on, based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”

The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb aspettare can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for—not something we ourselves can make happen. So, rather than motivating us, expectations can be, by their very nature, disempowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.

Aspirations vs. Expectations
Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent—all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than reaching a particular endpoint.

“Aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, will depend on circumstances as they arise.

This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.

Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.

Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness”—the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.

Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices, and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. Yet we can’t control what other people—or governments, or companies, or institutions—do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact, and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.

To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:

To aspire is to:

Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Recalibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.

Daphne Eviatar, a CiPP graduate, is a certified professional coach and consultant who helps individuals and organizations figure out what they want to change and how they want to change it. Daphne received her coach training through Leadership That Works’ Coaching for Transformation program, accredited by the International Coach Federation. She also completed the Rockwood Institute’s Art of Leadership and Advanced Art of Leadership fellowship programs, and is a Rockwood-affiliated professional coach. A lawyer and former journalist, she is a graduate of New York University School of Law, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and Dartmouth College.