On August 27, 2013, I was a full-on nail-biting, pen-tapping, compulsive-collarbone-scratching, obsessive-outfit-choosing, nervous wreck.
It’s true. I really was scared.
I suppose it was to be expected, this anxiety. It was fairly run-of-the-mill stuff: I was a college freshman, so obviously I worried that everyone would hate me and I’d be a social outcast, confined to a dark and dank dorm room like the Boo Radley of 200 Church; that I’d turn out to be stupid and stare dumbfoundedly at professors’ PowerPoints while my peers nodded along with barely concealed boredom; that I’d get lost trying to find my classes and never arrive at my destination; that my roommate would be an allergy-prone ogre who coughed and hacked all night long.
But underneath all of my anxiety and fear lay the assumption—the unbridled expectation—that my first year of college would be a transformative, awe-inspiring, life-changing, incredible experience.
College, everyone always said, was made for people like me (I always assumed “people like me” meant those who’d worried more about cellular respiration than about alcohol in high school): it was where I would thrive. I’d grow in ways I never could have imagined. I’d make lifelong friends of every creed. I’d understand new universal truths. I might be somewhat cool (though that, admittedly, was hoping for a lot).
Once I arrived on campus, my nerves—being hated, being lost, being stupid, and being stuck with a habitual cougher of a roommate—were easy to quash. I toned down the more unseemly parts of my personality to attract some friends; I studied often and hard so as to keep up with lectures; before the first day of classes, I forced my friend Hadley to walk with me to each of my new classrooms until I got the route down pat; my roommate was a lovely creature with a robust and hearty immune system, prone only to the occasional sniffle.
The expectations of college greatness, though, proved trickier to reconcile with reality.
My first year of college was decidedly fine. I would give it an A-/B+ (as much as I detest slash grades—I mean, really, just choose one—it feels appropriate in this case). There were the usual struggles and triumphs. I had great professors, joined exciting groups, and met funny people. But I was socially awkward and introverted, said and did dumb things when I did interact with people, and occasionally felt that the work I was doing for my classes was unnecessary.
But this article isn’t about my first year of college itself, and that’s the point; it’s about what I thought it was, and what I thought it should be. Because I’d expected a lot, the objective experience itself became irrelevant.
I had gotten my hopes up. Way up. I had had expectations, so when it was all over—my first year at Wesleyan—I was distressed. Was it good? Maybe, but who even knew anymore, since it had been held to an impossible standard?
It was good, 2013-2014. But it hadn’t been the showstopper of which I’d dreamed. I expected a nine and got a seven, and those two points made all the difference. I perceived it not as what it was, but in relation to what I expected it to be.
Allow me to differentiate between a few words that might have come up for you while reading this article.
You can be optimistic without having expectations. You can look forward to things and maintain hope that they’ll turn out well. But don’t put so much weight on individual experiences, like college; a generally positive outlook on life will serve you well and allow you to take advantage of any opportunities that amble your way.
Strategic pessimism (saying, “I’m going to get a C on this test!!!”) leaves you momentarily happy with your A or B, but although I confess that I am a tried-and-true strategic pessimist when it comes to mini-experiences (a test, for example), I wouldn’t recommend it when it comes to an experience like college. It’s possible that saying, “College is going to be horrible; I should have worked on a dairy farm in Ireland this semester!!!” will leave you pleasantly surprised, but it can also result in an experience that is, just as you say, horrible. Strategic pessimism is targeted at something about which you’re anxious; it’s not an expectation about an experience.
Expectations are different, too, from goals and aspirations. Personal goals and aspirations are work; they are in your power; you can achieve or not achieve them, and the only thing holding you back from not achieving them is your own inadequacy (although, of course, achieving even personal goals is often hindered by things outside of our control, namely privilege and oppression). But my general guideline is this: instead of having expectations, have goals. Say, “This year, I’m going to devote forty minutes a day to reviewing French verb conjugations.” Or say, “This year, I’m going to ask new friends to lunch in order to expand my social circle.” Goals are timely and measurable.
In fact, goals give you back the autonomy you surrender to expectations.
Expectations give a lot of power to a thing—an experience—and allow that thing to fulfill you or to bore you. Aspirations allow you to focus on the ways that you can fulfill, or find meaning, in any experience in which you find yourself.
Freshmen, I’m not going to give you advice about what specifically to do in your first year at Wesleyan. You’ll figure it out, or maybe you won’t. But the important thing is this: you will be happier, and healthier, if you expect nothing and instead adapt to everything.