The Blessing of Low Expectations

His name was Roger.

I worked in residence life for three years of undergrad and four years of graduate school, and I will tell you that what I learned helping run dorms has been more useful than anything I learned in classes those seven years. (Except my Radio-TV Speech class; I actually use the skills from that class a lot, as it turns out.)

My first year of grad school, I was the residence director for one building of a two-building complex, and the other building’s RD was Roger. We managed the RAs and otherwise served as the theoretical adults amongst a sea of undergrads, though we were only a year older than those undergrads were. 

Roger was a tyrant. He was a law student, though I am not alleging a correlation between those two points. I didn’t know him very well, but I didn’t enjoy spending time with him, and his staff complained about him a lot. Anyway, he was bad at being an RD, and he got fired midway through the year, which was pretty rare. 

Roger was convinced that he was being unjustly terminated, that he was much beloved by his staff and residents, that the residents in his care would rise up to fight for him. And, as it turned out, he was horribly wrong. Some of the residents were happy to see him gone, and the rest honestly did not notice. His expectations of his role in their lives was wayyy too high.

I learned a lot from working across the courtyard from Roger. I learned that we all have blind spots, especially in terms of how we are perceived by others. I learned not to count on popular uprisings to save your bacon. And I learned that, when everyone is telling you something that you don’t want to hear, you should not quickly write them all off as misguided. Mostly, I learned not to expect too much. 

Actually, that’s not true; “don’t expect too much” is sort of baked into my life story. Every sports team I have ever rooted for has been an under-resourced perennial loser that only occasionally gets almost-lucky (Jacksonville University basketball, Wake Forest University basketball and football, Jacksonville Jaguars, pre-1990s Atlanta Braves, pre-2000s Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays). I am a Gen Xer, meaning that while Boomers’ first memory of NASA is moon landings, mine is the Challenger tragedy. The first famous military officer of my lifetime was Col. Oliver North (who I met before he was infamous, a story for another day). I have always understood that, usually, things don’t work out like you planned. 

My favorite t-shirt has on it the front page of the then-St. Petersburg Times declaring “A Giant Leap” as the then-(and now-)San Francisco Giants declared they were moving to the then-Suncoast Dome (they did not). It’s my favorite because of the side column, running along a photo of Giant Cory Snyder, which said, presciently, “What Could Still Go Wrong.” That’s pretty much my vibe; if it ends up on my tombstone, it wouldn’t be awful.

But Roger taught me that, for those who expect too much, the fall is really hard and painful. I hurt for him at the time, watching him discover that the “Save Roger” movement had only one member. So, since that time, whenever I hear a lot of praise or expectation headed some way, especially toward me, I think, “Oh, this isn’t going to end well.”

If that sounds dark or pessimistic, well, I guess, maybe. But it doesn’t have to be. Paired with this superpower of being able to anticipate “what could still go wrong” is a deep knowledge that, if we’re really being honest, this is all bonus time to begin with. My origin story is such that I have good reason to believe that I should not have made it this far. My affinity to “It’s a Wonderful Life” is tied up in the idea that it isn’t hard to see a world in which I am not around. Ultimately, the lowest of expectations is not to be alive at all.

So if the saga of Roger and my Gen X upbringing gave me a sense of the importance of avoiding hubris, the baseline blessing of low expectations gives me a sense of gratitude. Sometimes, your team wins despite the odds. Sometimes, what could still go wrong doesn’t. Sometimes, people actually do step up on your behalf instead of just giving you lip service. All the time (so far), you wake up. And whenever the right thing happens, it’s a welcome surprise.

If we have learned anything from the last (2? 5? 15? 53?) years, maybe it’s that we shouldn’t expect too much. We should allow ourselves the blessing of low expectations. When our daughter was an infant, if we got to do two of the eat/shower/laundry trifecta, we considered it a win, but, really, we knew that if we all got up and were reasonably healthy, we were already ahead of the game. Maybe that sounds pathetic, especially if you’re hooked on achievement. But if you try it out, you might be surprised. When you enter each day expecting nobody to step up for you and nothing to go right, you’ve got nowhere to go but up. That’s the blessing of low expectations.

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