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Most people think they know what they want, or seem to, anyway. They order their favorite flavor of ice cream, wear a shirt in their favorite color, and in general feel like they know what they prefer in most areas of their life that matter.
But not everyone, and not always. Sometimes I don’t even know the difference between my expectations and others’. That might sound a little outlandish, but it’s true—these things can be harder to disentangle than you might guess.
For instance, I thought that I wanted to graduate at the top of my class in high school because it was something that was important to me. But really, I did it because I wanted my parents to be proud; I wanted to be accepted into the college of my dreams; I wanted my potential future roommates to like me.
This is a typical story. I was pretty much every other high schooler—every other person—who had ever fooled themselves into thinking their motivations came from within when they actually came from without.
But on some level, I was aware of this. And it caused me a lot of tension and confusion throughout my life, which was only exacerbated when I started applying to college. I never realized how many people had reason to give input on my life choices until that point.
It was hard to dissect the cacophony of voices. Of course, not all of them were even audible—some of them were voices I’d contrived in my head. I thought for some reason that I would be gaining favor with my grandpa if I went to the college that he did, even though I’d never spoken to him about considering that school.
My mom was too careful not to have an opinion, which only made me more anxious. I started trying to intuit her leanings on the matter from inscrutable social cues, and it drove me half crazy. She remained steadfastly (professedly, at least) indifferent, so as to afford me the greatest freedom of choice.
But freedom of choice is never really what it says it is. As I said, there were voices, both heard and unheard, coming from a thousand directions. Freedom of choice is a curse when you are thrust into the context of a college choice.
You begin trying to tailor the kind of student you are to the college you want to go to. I literally tried to convince myself I had an interest in geometry (I hated geometry) because I thought it would be a nice thing to talk about in my application based on one comment from my AP Chemistry teacher that I seemed to have a “geometrically inclined mind.” What kind of convoluted rationale is that?
As a student on the cusp of such a huge decision, you become extremely sensitive to any kind of input. You forget how to distinguish which stimuli and motivations come from you and which come from the people around you. You can interpret anything as an omen that you should choose one option or another.
My chemistry teacher’s comment is one example. Why should it have mattered whether I lived out the potential of my “geometrically inclined mind,” whatever that meant? Why did that innocuous attribute (which wasn’t even accurate) become some sort of holy grail for me?
It’s not that you can’t trust your judgment when you’re faced with a decision like this. It’s just that you need to be extra careful. Because what seems to be your judgment may in fact be someone else’s, needling its way into your brain and masquerading as yours.
And this happens so easily because your brain wants the help. The sheer weight of this decision is so heavy that it can be an incredible relief to have the input of another person – any other person. You start to value the opinions of the people around you even more than usual because they represent a potential shoulder to rest the weight of your decision on.
You can tell yourself this and then swear off dependence on others’ opinions forever, and that might be a very healthy and viable option for you. But your brain isn’t necessarily wrong. It can really be a great resource to gather input from other people. That’s where the balance part comes in.
First, you really have to be a stickler about who you let into your sphere of influence. Evaluate everyone and everything they say fairly. First, ask yourself if you value this person’s input independent of what they’re actually saying.
If you do, this means that you care about how your decision will affect them. You might not agree with the input they give, but you do care about the impact your decision will have on their lives and emotions. So you consider how they feel, and their rationale, for the inevitable point when you will either have to decide in their favor or explain to them, because they’re important to you, why you didn’t.
On the other side of the coin, you should listen to everyone at least at first, because regardless of whether or not you really value their input from an interpersonal standpoint, they might offer a perspective you haven’t taken on before.
This can be overwhelming, though, and because of that it’s important to remember that just because you are open to their input doesn’t mean you are automatically accepting it. Because sometimes the expectations others have of you may be perfectly valid. They may make perfect sense and be perfectly reasonable. But that doesn’t mean you have to adopt them.
Work hard to establish a rational basis for your expectations of yourself. This may lead you to question them or to refine them so that they are more in line with your overall goals and the nature of the real world. You don’t have to use your rationale to justify your position to anyone – but you know you have that option if you need it.
Sometimes it can be useful to be able to revisit your standards. Maybe what is “good” to you isn’t what your parents or your former teachers or your current professors and peers at college would consider “good”; you have to figure out which of all these expectations has enough weight to influence your actions.
You might consider “good” taking four classes and getting a 4.0, but your advisor might consider “good” taking 5 classes and getting a 3.7. Potential employers might prefer to see a wide breadth of extracurriculars on your roster, but you might want to devote your time to one specific non-university-sanctioned passion project.
There is no one universal scale of expectation, and as society changes, so does the norm for what people expect of each other in various fields. What is most important is your dedication to your own standard of excellence and your own definition of the scale of expectation.
And yours can change over time, too. This happens through a continuing dialogue with yourself about what your expectations should be and why; taking in the perspectives of others can also play a crucial part in this. So the first element of your standard of excellence should be checking in with yourself about what constitutes that standard.
But that’s just one piece of advice. You get to choose whether or not to follow it. If you don’t think it will lead you to what you define as your expectations, by all means disregard.
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