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Not-so-Great Expectations

The secret to both our happiness and pain

Photo by Simon Tang

There is only one reason for all our happiness and pain, and that is expectation.

If we expect to get, keep or do something and we do not, we experience pain.

If we do, we experience happiness.

All we feel in life is relative. The rift between expectations and reality is both why we dream and why we grieve.

Today I want you to follow this principle that I, too, have been putting into practice in my life:

Expect nothing from others, expect more from yourself.

Expect Nothing from Others

Do not expect to receive anything from anyone at all.

Not time, not effort, not money, not favors. No one owes you anything, nor has a duty to serve you in any way. You’re not innately deserving of someone else’s respect or love.

Of course, a distinction has to be made between personal life and work. At work, expecting others to deliver can be a powerful tool of leadership and empowerment. However, in your personal life, no one is obliged to do what you say.

We’ve all had people disappoint or offend us. A friend cancelled on us, or an acquaintance badmouthed us, or a parent left us. There is nothing wrong with being hurt by these actions, but do not permit them to leaving a lasting scar on your life.

Remember that everyone, even your closest loved ones, are not bound to you. They are free to do whatever they want, for or against you.

At first glance this might be a rather fatalistic point of view. Does that mean that one day, everyone we care about might disappear from our lives? Well, yes. I won’t sugarcoat it.

However, let this understanding help you cherish and nurture these relationships as they are today. Tomorrow, something might happen that takes everything away.

Seneca tells the story of Stilbo, a traveling stoic who returns home to find his city pillaged, his family killed, and his possessions taken. And yet, when someone asked Stilbo, “What have you lost?”, his answer was,

“I have lost nothing. My goods are all with me.”

He was unaffected by the loss of his family and wealth, not because he was heartless, but because he had already done everything he could to treasure them when they were still around.

One central pillar of stoicism is the idea that your thoughts and actions are the only things within your control; therefore, do not be bothered by that which is without.

In other words, don’t form expectations on whatever is beyond yourself. Instead, exercise the little autonomy you have to actively celebrate and better the present.

No one is obliged to be good to you, but you can be good to them. I still struggle with this.


I am, at best, petty. Born a sensitive child, my emotional fragility was magnified by an Asian palate for gentleness, a Millennial lack of tribulation and mental fortitude, and a Liberal erosion of masculinity.

I remember vividly an incident in primary school where I got mocked for having a crush on a girl who was ‘too good for me’. The other kids had a blast picking on the small Chinese nerd who didn’t know his place. Their sneers were seared into my memory, but looking back, I had no reason to be angry.

They didn’t owe me nice words. They had all the right to say what they wanted.

Even now, I get mad sometimes for the stupidest reasons. Quite recently a cashier in New York pissed me off because she insisted I greet her before taking my order (it’s not common practice in Asia to ask cashiers “how are you?”; we just get to the point).

I assumed she’d just take my order and not make me look like an ass. But, again, I had no reason to expect her to treat me nicely. Rather, I should have expected more from myself, to be humble enough to apologize and accede.

Photo by Simon Tang

Expect More from Yourself

You are the only thing in your control, so choose to be the best you can.

By expecting more from ourselves, we can continue to learn and grow as people and become more of a blessing to those around us, and to the world.

The old adage goes, ‘your biggest competitor is yourself’. Strive to compare yourself to nobody but yourself, and set out every morning to outdo yesterday’s you.

This goes for both your personal and work lives. Make yourself abide to rules and standards that you have not yet met — do something nice for the people you care about, make an effort to meet them, don’t touch your phone when you’re with them. In your work, always put in your best effort, stick to a high level of productivity, make things that give value to others.

That said, humans are not perfect. We fail every single day, and will inevitably fall short of every standard.

That’s why I want you to expect more, instead of everything, from yourself. Leave some room to breathe.

Commit to waking up at 0700h every morning, but when you decide to hit snooze on a Saturday morning, don’t beat yourself up over it. Try your best to remember your friends’ birthdays, but when one slips your mind, it’s not the end of the world.


There’s an inherent double standard. I’ve always believed in expecting more of yourself than of anyone else, and I believe it’s for the best.

If you expect the same from yourself and from everyone else, you’d just wind up disappointed. Either others will fail to live up to your expectations, or you yourself will falter in comparison to others.

I often fall into the trap of arrogance because it seems like I have achieved more in my life than those around me. Which is absolute bullshit. On one hand, very few I know are working towards the same goals as myself. On the other, there are millions out there who are more skilled and accomplished than myself.

Whenever I feel like I’m doing well enough, I take a quick scroll through Instagram and Medium (and occasionally, the Guinness World Records) to see just how tiny I am.

That helps get me back into my head. Instead of trying to measure myself against the weaker or the stronger, I just make sure I’m doing better than I was yesterday, last month, last year.

I don’t expect myself to accomplish everything — just more. That keeps me moving forward, living constructively, and being happy.

I don’t expect anyone else to treat me well. When there are no expectations, the wrongdoings don’t sting, the gifts are extra-sweet, and the present is all that matters.


Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this, please like and share so that it can get to even more people.

For more like this, visit my Medium profile or read last week’s article: Motivation is Useless: The Key to Getting It Done.

Originally published at medium.com

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