At the beginning of every semester, I vow that this time around I will do it all. I will keep up with readings as they are assigned, I will put friends first, making sure to manage a jam-packed social calendar, I will join clubs, read for pleasure and, this semester, I really will follow professor Maas’ sleep schedule and get 8.25 hours of shuteye every night, no exceptions.
No matter how genuine my plans — and I assure you, I do wholeheartedly plan to stay on top of everything — somewhere along the way, usually around this time, my good intentions and perhaps naïve optimism crash head-first into reality and I find myself struggling to juggle even half of the things I had hoped I would manage.
I don’t believe I am the first person who has ever set unrealistic expectations for myself, nor am I alone when I say I sometimes fool myself into thinking I can have my cake and eat it too. In fact, our culture values success through mania. Uncle Sam has, even in the midst of perhaps the darkest days in our nation’s history, continued to preach that we can do whatever we put our mind to with a bit of hard work — and maybe a Ponzi scheme here or there. And, to some extent, he’s right. We can, if we work hard and make the “right” decisions, find happiness and maybe even success in the classical sense somewhere down the line, but I wonder if some combination of The American Dream, growing up in the 90s at the peak of our nation’s wealth and Cornell’s environment of academic intensity has led me (and maybe you?) to create unrealistic expectations, making us believe we can (and should) take on more than is actually possible, and I’d argue, necessary.
By setting the bar excessively high at the beginning of each semester, while applying to college or looking for jobs, we ultimately risk ending up disappointed. Even if I do more this semester than I have in the past, I still can’t do everything. However, had I never set any goals, or had no expectations for myself, would I ever be motivated to go to class? The answer is probably no. Is disappointment or complacency more damaging to our spirits than failure?
Not surprisingly, psychologists have done a lot of research examining goal pursuit, motivation, expectations and how we view ourselves in relation to these factors (i.e. how our “egos” are affected). Psychologists believe that optimism and pessimism function on a continuum, meaning a person can tap into optimism or find themselves pessimistic at different times. Somewhere between optimism and pessimism rests realism, a place where studies have shown few of us exist.
As humans (especially of a Western culture) we are inherently inclined to believe we are capable of doing more than we actually are. That is, all of our “to-do lists” for any given day are systematically overly optimistic — no matter how many times we prove ourselves wrong, we continue to hope for the best.
Additionally, psychologists have studied expectations in different countries. Studies have shown that in general, people of Chinese heritage tend to be more realistic than others, even erring on the side of pessimistic. Chinese subjects were much less likely to falsely boost their self-esteem.
Whether we function on the pessimistic side of realism, or the optimistic side of realism is influenced by personal experience, culture, motivation and probably other, perhaps unconscious or competing goals. What psychologists have found, however, is that those who function closest to realism — regardless of whether it is optimistic or pessimistic — show signs of good mental health.
So what do I make of my already unraveling goals? I think high-achievers should expect a lot from themselves but should also be prepared for disappointment. If I don’t sleep quite as much as I had promised myself I would, or make as much time for lunch with friends as I had hoped, I may be disappointed, but it won’t set me into a tailspin. For the things in our lives that actually might (they’re different for everyone), we defend ourselves, and more likely to set ourselves up for the worst.
Sometimes, no matter how skilled or ambitious we may be, life gets in the way of our best intentions. Whether we tend toward pessimism or optimism, may we at least try to re-evaluate and aim close to what’s real for a happier, healthier, more satisfying life.
Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shades of Grey appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.
Original Author: Hannah Deixler