defining self expectations

One of my mother’s favorite childhood stories about me goes something like this:

At age 5, we sat you down for something like an IQ test, filled with odd math problems and weird brain puzzles, next to four of your other “talented” peers. There was no time limit to finishing these problems, you just had to do your best to finish everything you could.

And you did exactly that — “your best.” You couldn’t solve the last problem after staring at it for a good few minutes, so you stood up, proclaimed that you were done, and asked to go buy some snacks to reward yourself, while all your other friends sat there struggling for another hour until they found a solution.

The results came back and you ranked number two out of the five kids. And while I was bummed that you could have been number one if you had the patience to solve that last problem, you were thrilled to know that you scored higher than you thought you would, and still had time to eat crackers while everyone else sat desperate to finish this darned last problem.

I was happy then because I really had tried my best, and got more than what I had expected.

Disappointment is by definition the sadness associated to seeing results that were less than one had hoped for. So while my mother was disappointed that I was not number one, I wasn’t. Rather, seeing better results than expected is always associated with positive surprise, accompanied typically with a morale and confidence boost.

As is somewhat typical of talented young Asians,

all my childhood into adulthood, I participated in all sorts of moments that tested for my mother’s disappointment. From reciting 404 digits of pi to national math and chemistry olympiads to Korean speech and debate competitions, there was always some sort of trophy or medal in front of my eyes that my mother so dearly wanted me to bring home.

These trials always ended up in a cacophony of jealousy and vain for everyone involved. My young competitors crying on the podium floors with hands dragging away the tears, mothers and fathers holding the hands of winners and losers alike, others boasting loudly, hands holding high their metallic tokens of pride. All hands that had just been solving problems much too hard for 99% of the world, where expectations should have been just plain confirmation that it is, indeed, quite hard to be in the 1%.

Instead, there were expectations [of mothers and fathers], expectations [of being better than friends], expectations [of scoring top marks, no matter what], expectations everywhere.

Expectations [unreasonably high and undoubtedly accompanied with disappointment].

I told my mother each time she shouldn’t have expectations for me, or that she should have the same expectations that I hold for myself, and that way she will be much happier and prouder.

Naturally, my own self expectations exist. I know what is reasonable for me and that I should always put in the best effort to accomplish them.

5 year old Jenny believed in solving all the problems she could. 5 year old Jenny left the last problem unsolved, seeing it wasn’t worth the hassle. After, 5 year old Jenny rewarded herself with crackers for finishing all the other problems.

25 year old Jenny still believed in solving all the problems she could. 25 year old Jenny was not able to solve all her problems, seeing it wasn’t worth the hassle, and then rewarded herself with wine. In both timelines, there were things she could have done better and things that she felt were out of her reach. Either way, expectations were met or exceeded. Content.

In 2022, my self expectations were both high and low.

It was high in that — I wanted to do well, to show myself that I had what it took to not let external factors affect my wellness or my ability to learn and fit in. I wanted to be the jack and the master of all trades, to be able to break into new shoes with minimal effort. I knew it was in me to be able to do so. To ruthlessly ask for constructive feedback on where I was lacking, and put it into immediate actions for change.

It was low in that — I knew what I was asking from the usual high performing self was unreasonable. I felt swept away by all the changes I had in every core aspect of my life — location, jobs, perceived identity, relationships. With any and all of these changes, I expected fully that I would be crying in plane rides feeling just so tired, or drowning in alcohol trying to find joy in a cramped schedule full of external expectations.

I saw 2022 as a success nonetheless. Looking back, there are many moments where I surprised myself. I achieved a lot, and I’m not letting myself feel disappointed for things that I couldn’t do my best in, or all the mistakes I made along the way.

The 2023 horizon doesn’t seem to have the excuses I gave myself for all the changes. I have belief that I can do even better than I did last year and to surprise myself even more.

And I remind myself that there are no trophies or medals or certificates in the competition of living your own life. There is only one participant, both the judge and the competitor, who is sometimes the winner and sometimes the loser, depending on what expectations were set.


기대가 높아질수록 추락이 더욱이 무섭게 느껴지고 실망이 커진다는것을 잊지않기를.

defining self expectations

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