Life : A Series of Expectations

by Ailun Shi

When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon. I got straight As, did extracurriculars, worked hard… I was the mold for the perfect success story. I would go to college, get my undergrad, get into Johns Hopkin’s medical program, do my residency, then earn six figures for the rest of my life. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know all those steps to be a doctor back then. What mattered was that I was willing to do anything to get there.


Then… middle school happened. I grew pimples and acne and found myself a teenager instead of a kid. Suddenly, I realized there were a lot more careers than I had ever considered. I went through a phase. On some days, I wanted to be an architect, or a fashion designer. On other days, I would take “What career should you choose” quizzes from online and get the dreaded suggestion to go into finance. I even contemplated underwater basket weaving, it’s offered at several post-secondary institutions, until I realized it’s possible to get splinters from the task. But these were all fantasy musings, a manifestation of teenage rebellion, in the form of considering careers I knew I would never actually pursue. In fact, on most days, I’d still want to be a cardiovascular surgeon. So the years went by, one by one, until one day, I woke up, left behind middle school, and entered high school. High school was when I realized that maybe being a doctor wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe I don’t want to be a doctor.


Maybe I want to be an author.


My parents quickly rebuffed the idea. You could say ‘I thought I was ON the right road’, but that ON turned into a NO. “You won’t make it,” was what they told me right before they signed me up for another SAT prep session. “It’s an unstable market, with no guarantee for success.” And, in a way, they’re right. In fact, the median earnings of professional authors fall below minimum wage.


It’s this idea of ‘expectation’ that forces us to choose the paths that, many times, have already been laid out since birth. Those of us that are bright and do well in school are expected to become rich and successful. Boys are born expected to like masculine colors and toys and go into jobs that have traditionally been male-dominated. After all, have you ever had a male nanny for yourself or your children? I should think not.


Expectation. We’re surrounded by it. We’re expected to get to school or work at a certain time, and we’re expected to adhere to certain social norms. There’s a misconception that ‘expectation’ is something that has to be said, or written down. Expectation isn’t a contract; it’s a human construct born out of our minds in response to achieve what we perceive will impress others, specifically, the people whose thoughts and feelings matter to us. It’s a way to set goals and keep our lives on track. But like everything else, too much of it can be a poison to our future, success, and perhaps most importantly, happiness.


My parents never told me what they expect me to grow up and become. But after so many years of signing me up for tutoring and prepping and unusual extracurriculars, I’ve come to the conclusion of what they do not expect. They don’t necessarily expect me to become a doctor or a lawyer or some other prestigious career that’s universally accepted as quote on quote “what smart people do”, like an engineer or a scientist. On the other hand, they also don’t expect me to become an artist or dancer or musician... because what they do expect is something that calls for a reputable degree or education.


Parents worry—I get it. And fortunately, I understand it. There will come a day when they won’t be there for us, and that day may come very soon. We need to have a stable income, one that can support a family, a roof over our heads, food, insurance. The issue isn’t parental worry—there’s a legitimate reason for that, after all. Growing up, we’re told we can be anything we want, but that isn’t necessarily true, not when we’re stopped before we ever even start. Our generation is expected to have the rest of our lives planned out from the moment we’re asked “what do you want to be when you grow up” in kindergarten on the first day of school. When an adult asks us about our future, we’re supposed to already know our dream school, along with one or two alternates. We should know exactly what we’re majoring in, and the specific career that it leads into. People always say that we should have an idea for what we plan to do with our life as early as possible, and to stick to it. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to think this way. Having a plan for the future isn’t a bad thing. But our generation is so afraid of failing, and our parents are so afraid of failing us, that we’ve forgotten that failing is a natural step to success.


L. L. Henderson once said, “Fathers send their sons to college either because they went to college or because they didn’t.” The idea is to expect an equal amount of or greater success with each successive generation. It’s like an infinite exponential function, a roller coaster that only goes up if you will, but that’s only in theory. In reality, there are no roller coasters that go up without one day coming back down, and there is no family with each generation more successful than the last. There’s always dips and turns in the equation, perhaps even a crash. The dinosaurs found that out the hard way, but they paved the way for us: humans.


Today, in the twenty-first century, we live in a culture that praises shiny awards and accolades. When college apps roll around again, when you apply for your next job, when strangers come up to you… and all three ask about a list of your life accomplishments… chances are you won’t answer ‘family’, or ‘friends’, or even ‘happiness’. Chances are, you’ll flash a plastic swimming trophy, some girl scout or boy scout badges, maybe all those certificates that prove you made the honor roll every year you were in school. If you don’t have any of those, well, that’s what participation awards are for. It’s funny how we base our worth on trophies and badges and certificates, all of which are mass produced and can be easily obtained by anyone on Amazon for less than ten dollars. Greatness shouldn’t be measured in the medals we get, or the honors, or the material items we own that others can never dream to have.


Perhaps in six years, I will end up applying to medical school. My parents have told me many times they look forward to getting their heart operated on for free; heart disease, after all, isn’t exactly uncommon. Or maybe I’ll end up with a creative writing degree, and one day you’ll see my name on books in Barnes & Nobles. The truth is, I don’t know.


It’s easier for some people. They love what they’re expected to become. But for most of us, it’s not so simple. At the end of the day, would you really consider the wooden plaque that proclaims you ‘Employee of the Month’ in a job you hate as your greatest achievement? I’ve seen so many people go through the same cycle over and over again. I’ve seen my own parents with the same affliction. The people who are stuck in dead-end jobs and hate their careers and wish that they could have done anything else. The people who wish clocks would go faster when they’re at work, and then wish those same clocks would go slower when they aren’t. You see these people everywhere. You see it in the impatience of Starbucks baristas and in the carelessness of doctors. You might even see it in yourself. For some of us, it might be too late to change our path. But it’s never too late to stop following what we’re expected to do. We’ve spent so long trying to satisfy others that we’ve failed to satisfy ourselves. And we have this ridiculous idea that as long as we satisfy others, we’ll eventually satisfy ourselves. We tell ourselves, just make it past high school, and everything will be easier. Just make it past college, and we’ll relax. Just get the next job promotion, and we’ll be happier. The expectation of our life never ends. Not until we’re drawing our last breaths and recalling all the regrets of chasing satisfaction.


A few weeks ago, when my friend walked into class and asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered ‘happy’. Because that’s the truth. That’s really what I want to be. I want to be happy when I’m older. Whatever else I want to do can fit into that mold. That’s why I ask you to stop chasing the expectations of others for your own satisfaction. It won’t work; trust me, I’ve tried, and all of you have probably tried. It’s time we stop counting our badges and trophies and certificates and comparing them to the accolades of others. Instead, it’s time we help others reach their own, personal expectations instead of expecting them to fulfill ours.

© 2019 Helen: a literary magazine