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High Expectations vs. Happiness

My journey to find the balance between the two.

In 2019, I attended my first Tony Robbins event, Unleash the Power Within. This event, and the others that followed, had a profound effect on how I view myself and the world around me. Tony likes to provide aphorisms to summarize lessons and leave you with something easy to remember to cue your memory. There were two particular sayings from that first event that really stuck with me because I agreed with them both but I also saw them in potential conflict with each other. This apparent conflict led me down a path of deeper reflection on how they can coexist.

  1. Happiness = your reality minus your expectations.
  2. If you want an outstanding life, you need to have outstanding standards for yourself. We all get what we tolerate.

Happiness = Reality Minus Your Expectations

The first concept will be familiar to students of eastern philosophies — suffering comes from desire. We suffer when reality does not match what we expect from it. You expected (desired) that your spouse would do a chore but they didn’t. You expected to own a house by 30 but you don’t. You expected your start-up to be a unicorn but it’s struggling.

Tony’s prescription for this plight has its own wonderfully simple and effective aphorism — trade expectation for appreciation. Focus on what you do have instead of what is missing. If there’s ever been a hack for happiness, it’s forcing yourself to identify things you’re grateful for until it becomes a habit.

I’m fortunate to have a natural predisposition to being cheerful and that was further reinforced by my life experience as an immigrant. We immigrated to the US when I was three from Donetsk, Ukraine. It is easy to be appreciative when you are constantly reminded that there was an alternate reality where you ended up living in the middle of a war zone. But reflecting on this has also led me to realize that I developed a pattern when I was younger, believing I could increase happiness by lowering my expectations. I’ve always been extremely optimistic and ambitious but I tended to not “get my hopes up” on any individual activity to avoid disappointment. I was certain in the long run that great things would happen but I was completely uncertain on how I would get there — I went with the flow. This mirrors a concept in Peter Thiel’s Zero to One which he refers to this as Indefinite Optimism — a flawed approach where you expect things to get better but you don’t know how it will happen.

Thiel’s 2x2 Framework from Zero to One

Setting Outstanding Standards

The second concept is one that has been an adjustment for me. Tony’s lesson is that we all receive what we tolerate. We might want to have a healthy body or successful business but if we tolerate mediocrity in our lives, relationships, body, work, etc. that is what we will end up with. To have an outstanding quality of life, we need to have outstanding standards for ourselves — doing so changes “shoulds” into “musts”.

When I first heard this from Tony, I quickly realized places where I was tolerating a lower standard for myself. I decided then, with certainty and conviction, that I was going to demand more from myself. Since then, I’ve been able to set up an environment that keeps me accountable to this standard. However, a higher standard or expectation seemed to me to be at odds with my plan to replace expectations with appreciation.

Remember: we all get what we tolerate. So stop tolerating excuses within yourself, limiting beliefs of the past, or half-assed or fearful states. -Tony Robbins

A False Choice

At the end of the event, we all listed out our personal goals for the following year. Inspired by my new higher standard, I set much more ambitious and concrete goals than I ever had before. However, setting those goals triggered my pattern of not wanting to set myself up for disappointment. If I set a stretch goal of $x in net worth, a sub-4 hour marathon, or a large promotion, wasn’t I undermining my potential future happiness?

Ultimately, I realized that the way these concepts can co-exist is by separating inputs vs outputs (see my previous post on this topic). My goals are generally non-deterministic, meaning you can repeat the same inputs and get different outputs every time. In other words, I don’t have control over the result. However, I can always define my inputs to be fully in my control. I can’t know for sure that the personal investments I make over a given year will yield the return to hit my net worth goal but I can commit to investing x% of my paycheck each month.

The realization is that I can maintain an extremely high standard or expectation for what I’m going to put in towards a goal because that is in my control. As a result, my goals are much more input-based vs output-based — e.g. run 5 miles a week vs run a sub-4 hour marathon. As a result, if I don’t follow through on these input-based goals, I can accept the unhappiness that will follow. For me, that is healthy unhappiness — it is a signal that I need to course-correct — it is a form of accountability.

When to Break the Rule

I thought I was done thinking about this interplay until a recent all-hands meeting in which our founding partner explained how important visualizing the future success of the fund was for getting it started. Before he started, he reached a point where he had full certainty and conviction in where we would be one year later. He envisioned the team, the fund, the founders we had backed, and the impact they were having on the world. As Thiel would say, he was a Definite Optimist — he believed things would improve and he knew exactly how it would happen. That deep certainty allowed him to convey his vision to others — this wasn’t an idea that he was asking for feedback on; this was a concrete reality that was happening.

Listening to him, I realized he had set an extremely high standard or expectation for a result that he did not have full control over. He was setting himself up for potential unhappiness. In fact, he purposefully used the pain of reality not matching his expectations to fuel him to push even harder.

The takeaway for me is that if you want to do something extremely bold and ambitious, you will have to accept the risk of experiencing some pain. But as Tony says, “while pain is inevitable, suffering is not”. If you interpret that pain in a productive way it will push you that much harder.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation, and agriculture.

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