There’s something to be said for having low expectations: you’ll rarely find yourself disappointed. Or as baffled as “Confused 20-Something,” who’s two years out of college and quit her job at an educational nonprofit when she was accepted at an alternative certification program to become a middle school teacher only to find, now, she can’t get a job. Confused recently wrote in to Salon.com’s Cary Tennis for advice. Her problem?
Throughout the training, I had nagging, persistent feelings that this wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. Now I’m faced with confusion. Should I keep trying to find a job as a teacher, when it’s a job I’m not even sure I want anymore? Or should I pursue something else? The problem is, I don’t know what. I always thought I would go to law school, since that’s what I would be good at, but a part of me said, ‘No! You’re meant to do something more meaningful.’ I don’t know if it would make me happy. The problem is, I don’t know what makes me happy anymore. I could just wait tables for a while and figure out my next step, but nothing sounds like it would make me happy. I always thought I would be successful at whatever I pursued and to face this failure is difficult. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to find myself and what truly makes me happy, but every day I feel like I’m slipping further away from happiness. I’m sick of talking about my predicament to friends, because I feel like I’m boring them with my endless indecision. Why can’t I just be happy? What about my grand goals for myself? I feel like a failure.
“Confused” is hardly alone. And part of the root of her angst is, as Tennis says, the assumptions with which we are raised. Hard work leads to success. Success leads to happiness. If only it were so easy.
Another part of it has to do with being a woman, and at a decided disadvantage once we’re cast out into the real world, where our success or failure can no longer be quantified on a report card. As Barbara wrote:
Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules. Let’s face it. We missed the socialization.
And another part of it is that job dissatisfaction, particularly among 18-29 year olds, is reportedly rampant. Numbers with which Brazen Careerist’s Penelope Trunk would likely disagree, given her recent comment in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Morra Aarons-Mele:
Gen Y is sweating the recession the least–they are sunny and optimistic and they never expected job security anyway. They never expected to have a lot of money, they are a financial train wreck-their parents can’t pay back the college loans. Gen Y never expected to be rich. They never expected job security.
While I tend to disagree with her assessment that Gen Y isn’t sweating their “financial train wreck”dom, I do think Trunk is onto something. And it has to do with expectations. Going back to poor “Confused,” let’s consider some of what Tennis had to say:
It is natural, during our many years of preparation, to acquire the habit of assuming that by excelling in our assigned tasks we will find happiness, or by finding one kind of occupation or profession we will find happiness. In fact, it is probably a useful misconception to believe that excelling in school or work will bring us happiness. If we believe such a thing, we are more likely to do well at our tasks.
That reminded me of some of Daniel Gilbert’s findings, in his bestselling book “Stumbling on Happiness.” The overall point of the book, in a nutshell, is that we, as humans, basically suck at predicting what will make us happy. He even verges into blasphemous territory, dispelling the two biggest “I’ll be happy if…” myths of all: money and babies. (That’s right, according not just to one study but to an amalgam of them, neither more money-past the point of the poverty line-nor having children makes us any happier than we already are. And on that last one, the numbers are downright shocking: happiness plummets when kids are born, then ekes steadily upwards, only making it to pre-baby levels once the children leave home. Seriously. Don’t shoot the messenger, please.) Yet despite such cold, hard numbers, we strive to earn more, and we procreate. Why? According to Gilbert, our social structures feed us the messages that doing so will bring happiness, because otherwise, who would do it? And then where would we be? Economy-free and extinct.
But I think there’s something else to consider in those shocking numbers, something to do with expectations. Perhaps we expect that fat promotion or fat baby to bring us so much happiness, that we’re that much more deflated when reality doesn’t measure up.
All of this brings me back to Confused, and her countless like-minded sisters. We have great expectations, fed, in large part, by a culture with its own agenda. But we’re new to the game. We had the school part down, but now that we’ve no gold stars to measure ourselves by, we’re at a loss. Role models are few, and structures aren’t set up to support us. Our choices are limitless, so when what we’ve chosen doesn’t magically make us Happy, we blame ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. Expectations can be good: they motivate us, push us to excel, to leave crappy situations that have disappointed us in the hopes of finding something better. But maybe, sometimes, ditching them altogether is what will make us happiest of all. Wouldn’t that be great?