Today I was tutoring a kid who told me that “Meeting expectations is hard. Especially when they aren’t even your expectations.” He grimaced as the words struggled out of his mouth.
I’ve only tutored this kid twice. His mom hired me a few days ago to help him with an English paper on Hunter S. Thompson. But the first time I met with him, it quickly became clear that he really didn’t need my help to write the paper. He was articulate and labeled himself a confident writer when I asked him how he felt about writing. He was at the stage where he was writing supporting notes for the paper, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. I told his mom at the end of the session that I really hadn’t helped him very much. She said she just needed someone to help him be accountable. Someone to give him the reason to sit down and do the work. While I was happy to help him, I suggested she find a tutor closer to her home and less expensive if that was all he needed, trying to make her life a little easier.
She texted me today and asked me to meet with him again. This time, he and I talked more about the books his paper is about, and that’s when we started talking about expectations. He wants to be a musician, but that’s not what his parents expect of him. I told him I get lots of students at the University where I teach who struggle with the same problem. And he is right. Expectations are hard, especially when they aren’t even your own.
I’ve watched my own son deal with this issue this year, as he entered his senior year full of anxiety and depression. I’ve told my kid for a couple of years now that he didn’t need to go straight to college, that he could take a gap year or two if he needed them. He and I thought those gap years would be spent playing junior hockey, but when he quit hockey last summer, we were both suddenly unmoored. He was getting a lot of pressure from school to complete his college application process. It all became too much and he ended up having to step back and take a break from the whole idea.
The thing about other people’s expectations, though, is that they’re like stars. They can guide you, but they aren’t the only lights in the sky. They don’t have to be in opposition to your own dreams. They don’t have to derail you from following your own passions. Expectations create opportunity, but they aren’t the same as destiny. The world is big enough for these things to coexist. It can take some creativity. Sometimes a lot of creativity. It can take time, and maybe some expectations get delayed or ordered into a different sequence. Maybe those expectations merge and morph into something else completely as you travel along. Some expectations may drift away like falling stars. But once you realize that expectations are nothing more than constellations to help you navigate the milky way that lies before you as your future, other people’s expectations aren’t nearly so stressful. You may even find that you can talk about them without grimacing.Because the only real cosmic mistake you can make is shutting your heart to opportunities without wishing on the stars first.