For inner peace, map your expectations to reality

If your expectations are consistently greater than reality, you become a hungry ghost

Expectations, in romance and work

Yesterday, I sat in a Manhattan café, eavesdropping on the conversation of a pair of young women. One of them was a performer in the theater scene.

Here’s what I overheard:

I want to date someone who makes a lot of money, because I don’t want them to be as poor as me. And I want them to be creative, but they don’t have to be in theater. Like, maybe they do photography on the side. I want to meet someone in real life, not on the apps…my friend actually texted me if I want to meet one of her friends, and sent me his profile. But I didn’t go. He’s 35, and has grey hair and wrinkles. I don’t think I’m ready to date a full-on man….

Later in the day, I visited with some friends, who told me about a talk they went to on the topic: “What is work?” My friend told me that her takeaways from the talk was that if your work has a few of these qualities, you are doing well:

  • Meaning (= contributing to something outside yourself you find valuable)
  • Control over your hours/work environment
  • Growth / learning potential
  • Connection to the end-product

At a point in the talk, there was a dance performance, and the dancers were asked: “How does dancing for money affect your enjoyment of dancing.”

The dancers said that they get less enjoyment, because they have to conform to other people’s projects and have to worry about making a living.

Exceptionalism

Joseph Campbell and Elizabeth Gilbert give roughly the same advice: follow your bliss, follow your interest. Mainstream media, by putting high-achieving people on magazine covers, roughly re-enforces this advice. There’s a name for this tendency: exceptionalism.

We are shown stories of people who are extremely rare specimens, and we subconsciously begin to compare ourselves to these folks. This is a recipe for dissatisfaction with life.

99.999% of people striving to become movie directors won’t be Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, or Quentin Tarantino. When I worked in Hollywood, I met many people who came to the town just like me — bright-eyed and ready to make art. In many cases, they were better writers than me. In LA, I met good writers working day jobs designing DVD boxes, as secretaries, as assistants. Meeting these people was a big reason I didn’t pursue film as a career. I saw that if pursued filmmaking, I might end up as the next Tim Burton, but more likely, I would end up like these folks. I chose not to play the Hollywood game. I didn’t love the artist’s life enough to do it for my main source of money.


It is a very rare person who is able make money for their bliss, and this often comes with hang-ups, including anxiety about what other people will think about your next project. After many years as a successful cartoonist Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, dropped off the face of the earth, and took up painting:

I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.

Bill Watterson

John Frusciante, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers did the same. Here’s what one of his collaborators said:

John’s in a different place right now. He’s in a place where he couldn’t care less about putting things out or about something being a product. He’s living by different standards right now with a different philosophy, so he doesn’t want to be a part of anything that he knows is going to end up being a product.

The central feature of “work,” it seems to me, is that you get paid for it. And so, because you are partially being motivated by money, you are not 100% able to follow your bliss. If, for a time, your bliss = what you get paid for, then you are very lucky. You are exceptional. For the vast majority of people — plumbers, secretaries, medical assistants, you name it — bliss and money are probably not so aligned. Even so, the work can still be meaningful and growth-inducing (see the bulleted list above).

What looks like mediocrity might actually be wisdom

What looks like mediocrity might actually be a conscious choice to pursue a balanced life. Choosing NOT to be an amazing X (scientist, actor, artist, doctor, etc…) but simply a competent X frees up time to spend with loved ones, enjoy nature, deepen one’s spirituality. Choosing to stop searching for the “perfect” partner can fee up time for building a good connection with an actual human being.

In The All or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel writes that an important part of successful marriage over the long haul is being able to reduce expectations for your partner during tough times. The young theater performer I quoted above is looking for a set of high standards to be met. She might find someone who checks all these boxes, but at some point, her partner will get grey hair and wrinkles, and she’ll have to dial down her expectations.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of a “hungry ghost.” These are often drawn with big belly, a small mouth, and a thin neck. They are never able to satiate their hunger, despite constantly eating.

If our expectations are consistently greater than reality, we become hungry ghosts. After reflecting on the “What is work?” talk, my friend said that she feels more peace about her job. “I like the people I work with, and that’s good enough,” she said.

It seems to me that the “follow your bliss” advice should come with an asterisk:

Follow your bliss*

*Yes, tracking what makes you come alive is a great thing to do. But there will be plenty of times in life that won’t feel like bliss, in work and relationships. This doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong with your work or your relationships.

We should not expect our work or relationships to be 100% bliss. We should not have such high expectations that we become a hungry ghost. We should, instead, seek to make our expectations conform to reality. This is one crucial ingredient to inner peace.

One thought on “For inner peace, map your expectations to reality

  1. Do you work as a mountain guide to get more time climbing mountains — in environments you don’t get to choose? Or do you take up work as a boring engineer to feed more adventures that you do get to choose?

    Seems the grass is always greener, eh.

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