Artist's Inspiration

The Affliction of the Ambitious: Reality vs. Expectations

On one of my favorite Q & A shows, Lori, a long-time watcher, asks for advice.  Like most of us who are ambitious, she suffers from a widespread malady- heart-breaking disappointment at the revelation that her dreams aren’t manifesting in the way she wants:

I’m clear on my goals and take daily action toward my dreams so motivation and productivity are not an issue; however-and this is a big however- I’m bothered by this constant uncomfortable feeling gnawing at me, reminding me that right now I’m not where I want to be.  I know it’s important to stay in the present, there’s probably no “there” so to speak, but I have a hard time not being dissatisfied with the present when it doesn’t match my overall vision for my life.”


At the heart of Lori’s discontent is the discrepancy between her expectations and her reality. This sentiment is especially familiar to us writers, many of whom have been scribbling for years and have yet to gain any sort of recognition.  We write, we read voraciously, we submit to magazine after magazine and….nothing.  We gaze enviously at our peers, wunderkinds who’ve reached the pinnacles of literary success, are writing for The New Yorker or reporting for The Atlantic, and want to give up.  “Where have all our committed hours of writing gotten us?” we lament, “Where’s our Man Booker Prize?  our Pulitzer?”

The disparity between where we are and where we want to be can be devastating.  If we’re to ever lead contented lives, we must relinquish these expectations entirely.  Does that mean we give up on our ambitions?  Absolutely not; it only means we stop obstinately demanding that the universe deliver them according to our timeline.  In her graceful guide to living an authentic life, Sarah Ban Breathnach makes a clear distinction between dreams and expectations:

“We have a creative choice to make if we want to be happy.  Do we continually and consciously strive for more accomplishments and accumulations?  Or do we lower our expectations, live with what we have, and learn to be content?  Many of us mistakenly think that lowering our expectations means we must surrender our dreams.  As one friend put it, “Sorry Sarah, but this sounds like giving up to me.”  Absolutely not.  Dreams and expectations are two very different things.  Dreams call for a leap of faith, trusting that Spirit is holding the net, so that you can continue in the re-creation of the world with your energy, soul, gifts and vision.  Expectations are the emotional investment the ego makes in a particular outcome: what needs to happen to make that dream come true…The passionate pursuit of your dreams sets your soul soaring; expectations that measure the dream’s success tie stones around your soul.” 

Great philosopher and psychologist Dr. William James’s wise definition of happiness follows a rather simple but profound logic: when reality meets our expectations, we’re happy; when it doesn’t, we’re depressed.  As artists, much of our bitter dissatisfaction comes from the expectation that we should be further along by now, we should have several impressive publications to our credit, we should have earned the admiration of important editors and agents.  These grandiose, overblown expectations are merely the longings of ego.  As Breathnach so eloquently states, expectations are the “emotional investment the ego makes in a particular outcome.”  A dream, say, might be to one day get published in Rolling Stone; an expectation would be to have your 1st piece worthy of publication in Rolling Stone.  If we measure our success by such unrealistic expectations, we’ll always come up short and, eventually, we will give up.  But if we learn to trust in the unfolding of our life’s path, in the timing of the universe, we’ll finally feel like enough.  Rather than look at our lives in terms of lack, we’ll begin to view each day as abundant with beauty and possibility.  It is only when we cultivate this sense of genuine gratitude for the miracle of what we do have that we can attract our dreams toward us.

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