Expectations, To Change

Expectations, To Change

In my last year of college, I was asked to change. Until then, I had played tennis almost daily for the past 16 years. I had spent countless mornings and evenings honing my technique, many nights in the gym strength training and improving my conditioning, and many weekends traveling to tournaments. It felt that I’d spend my entire life in the pursuit of perfecting my game. But, once I had completed my last year playing DI tennis and had no intention (nor ability) to be a professional tennis player, there were no more reasons to run through drills, improve my cardio, and even think about tennis. Life had told me tennis was over and all that time I had spent had culminated in this singular moment where none of that mattered.

I was then faced with the task of finding activities to fill this new void. I was faced with the task of designing a largely different life — a life that was foreign to me. The results were poor. As I had another year of university left, I chose to add more classes. I thought that with more time, I’d be able to learn more. I didn’t then know that my brain had limits and will scream in pain when those limits are reached. While I did change, my new life was depressing, unfulfilling, and undesirable.

Once I graduated, I was once again asked to change. After 17 years as a student I was now a working adult. No longer did classes provide guaranteed intellectual stimulation, nor did tennis provide mandatory physical activity. I’d entered a new life where I would become accustomed to seeing the same people, doing the same work, and living the same routine day after day. If I didn’t do anything, this new life could be the rest of my life. That thought haunted and drove me. All the changes I’d made since then had been child’s play. Largely, our entire school life is designed by people who want us to make the most of our time — to give us a good education, to have us make friends, and to introduce us to new ideas and experiences. Now, it was up to me to do all of that.

For three years, I ventured on a quest to redesign my life. All the changes happened incrementally, as any lasting change must. I read more, I intentionally went to new places, I intentionally became more sociable. Most of the time, I still felt miserable. Most of the time, I didn’t want to be at work, I didn’t want to be at home, and I didn’t want to be me. But, I found small moments of joy and satisfaction. 1% of the time I found peace — and felt flow — in drawing, reading, writing, and spending time with friends. At times, I felt myself admiring this new life I had created. At times, I respected myself. And, at least one person mentions that the meaning of life is self-respect. For the most part, I spent this time in pursuit of those small moments of joy, hoping that they’d expand to fill my entire life.

In my pursuit of developing a life I want to live in, I ended up in graduate school. Reentering school, I’d hoped to keep doing the things I’d come to enjoy and to experience those small moments of joy. And, moreso, to continue doing the things I’d come to expect out of my week: drawing, reading, writing, staying active, and spending time with friends.

Perhaps, that was a bit too idealistic because, once again, I’ve been asked to change. It seems that I haven’t put as much work into my research as my advisor has wanted. I’ve been asked to get more done and have felt resistance to this request. I’ve found the amount of time I’m willing to devote to this work and have found it difficult to get more out of myself. At another point in my life, I would have been more willing to devote the time to performing my work more diligently and with more care. But, now that I’ve become so accustomed to the idea of having time to draw, read, etc., to not do these things seems like a sacrifice I’m unwilling to make.

Perhaps this resistance is simply because I’m older and less willing to mold myself to a different life, especially when I’d intentionally put energy and work into the previous life I created. Perhaps this resistance is due to an expectation that life is supposed to be enjoyable at all times. And this expectation may be unrealistic and only guarantees a life that will never be as good as I think it could be.

Humble the Poet, spoken-word artist, propounds the idea that happiness is when your lived life falls short of the one you desire and expect. To be happy, he believes, you must either improve your lived life or lower your expectations.

Maybe it’s time to lower my expectations. I’ve recently come to the belief that I’ve become who I was meant to be and I no longer need to change to the extent that I did during those three years after undergraduate school. I’ve also come to believe that, if placed in the proper conditions, all of life will be enjoyable. Further, this pain and resistance coming from having to put in more work and make more sacrifices for graduate school only adds to the suffering that already comes with school.

Maybe this is a good lesson that I can’t shape the world around me to fit who I am at any moment and that life isn’t an oasis of joy. Instead, I should become comfortable with the idea of having to adapt to the world and experiencing suffering. I can’t prevent the suffering that comes from work, relationships, boredom, and all the things that come with living, but I need not add to that suffering with my own fantasy-like expectations. Maybe, in between the bouts of suffering, I can still look for those small moments of joy that I do experience with classes, research, and lab work.

It seems this time is not too different from any of the previous times I’ve had to change. Life is still difficult. I’m still searching for glimpses of joy and satisfaction.

Different circumstances. The same problems. The same solutions. But better equipped. Perhaps this is what a better life is.

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Timothy Tan

Timothy Tan

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Collector of Thoughts. This is my attempt to digest, organize, and expand on the daily thoughts that run through my mind.