Lewis Black is an angry man. Really. And really angry. I can relate.
He wasn’t always old. Neither was I. But now we both are. Black was angry when he was young though. You could argue that it’s his bit, his schtick. But I think it’s more than that. While I don’t approve of his profane delivery, I can appreciate that he’s being true to himself. Or so it seems. I’m always respectful of people who are congruent with who and what they really are. So you can understand how I feel about Lewis Black portraying himself as he really seems to be. I’ve watched him in enough interviews to know his angry, hopeless demeanor is more than an act. There’s a core element of truth to it. But that seems to be an element of comedy success…it has a ring of truth to it.
Last April, Black addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He was his usual irreverent, angry self. He was asked some questions during this presentations where he made a comment that serves as the title of today’s show.
“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” ― Margaret Mitchell
This isn’t about Lewis Black. It’s about hope. But maybe more precisely, it’s about optimism because isn’t that what helps drive hope? Black is a self-proclaimed socialist influenced by his parents and his upbringing. My influences and upbringing were different so I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist. Even so, part of me understands his cynicism. The dictionary defines cynicism as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; skepticism.” Like hope and optimism, cynicism exists in varying degrees.
Thankfully, most of us are able to muster up a degree of hope. Even if we sit across from doctors who tell us they’ve done all they can do, many of us hang onto a degree of hope that they might be wrong. Or that things might go better for us than they say.
Hope, optimism and cynicism aren’t constants. They fluctuate wildly, often depending on external circumstances and influences. They’re also universal in that we all experience them to one degree or another. Lewis is wrong. Hope isn’t just a young man’s game. And I don’t think it should be. I have reasons for my beliefs, too.
Sitting in an English class in high school I was told one day by a teacher, “You’re too young to be so cynical.” I don’t remember what prompted her feedback, but I remember the comment. I didn’t take issue with her, but I did disagree with her. At the time I remember thinking, “Can you be too young to be cynical?” I don’t think so. Maybe she presupposed that my skepticism was stronger than it really was. I didn’t think so. I still don’t. Of course, today it’s based on extensive experience. Back in high school it was based on far less experience. I suspect that means it’s higher today than it was back then.
Is There A Difference Between Hope, Optimism And Expectation?
These aren’t precise concepts, or experiences. Or whatever else you’d call them. They’re often nebulous and vague. But at other times they’re more obvious and clear. They’re not the only feelings or emotions that work that way.
I don’t suffer anxiety attacks, but like anybody I can experience moments of anxiety. People I know who suffer anxiety attacks can sometimes pinpoint the cause, but many times they have no idea what sparked it. It just happens. Sometimes hope and optimism work the same way. They can ebb and flow often without reason. Or so it seems.
Hope and optimism can often work the same way. You’ve experienced it. Maybe at work. Things are clipping along just fine. You’re feeling pretty good. It’s a productive day. Until the phone rings or the intercom and you have a conversation with somebody not on your favorites list. Like your boss. Suddenly, your heart rate accelerates, your palms get sweaty and your mouth gets dry. And the day is now shot. All hope and optimism are lost! 😀
Among hope, optimism and expectation – isn’t expectation considered the most solid of the 3? Expecting something is different than hoping for something. It’s more concrete. It sorta says you’re going to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen because you really think it’s gonna happen. Hope says you’re wishing it would happen, but it doesn’t comment on how strong you believe it. You may hope you win the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, but you don’t expect it to happen. You’re not even likely optimistic that it’ll happen.
So does that mean hope is wishful thinking?
No. Hope can be realized. It’s not some far fetched notion. But it likely depends on the odds of a thing happening, too, right? I mean if a couple gets pregnant they may hope for a boy. Well, there’s a 50% chance their hope will be realized. The odds are pretty good in that scenario.
The recent graduate applies to an exclusive master’s degree program that accepts only 30 students. In a typical fall semester 350 people apply for those 30 openings. Every student hopes to be among those selected. The numbers make the odds a longer shot than having a son versus a daughter. But you know some of those 350 students who apply expect to be chosen. They feel they have good enough grades and other resume positives to warrant them being selected over the others.
Hope isn’t just an element of age or experience as Lewis Black claims. Odds are involved. But here’s the real deal…YOU are involved. Your skill, your abilities, your situation — it’s all involved in hope, optimism and expectation.
We’ve all got stories of suicides – and I’m not talking about the mentally-ill driven variety. Stories of people who found themselves in difficult circumstances, often of their own doing, who lost all hope. Optimism gone. Expectations focused only on how much worse things might get.
I’m thinking of a business man some years ago who was embezzling money from his employer. He’d gotten himself into debt that he couldn’t handle. He made a bad choice. When he learned an audit was happening in order to figure out some odd-ball activities, he expected he’d be caught. Unable to face that, and the horrors it would cause his family, he decided a better option would be to drive to a remote location where he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Safe to say he reached a place of hopelessness. But it was his fault. He put himself in that spot.
Hope, optimism and expectations involve YOU, but that doesn’t mean it’s just all you. In recent years quite a few people who were part of my life have died. Some of them after long illnesses. Some of them had an expectation they’d improve. Others knew they wouldn’t survive. Circumstances happen beyond our control, but it doesn’t rob us of our ability to control our reaction to them.
“I cut an inch off of every straw I see, just to make the world suck a little less. ” ― Jarod Kintz, This Book Has No Title
Every business guy knows the maxim, “Hope is not a strategy.” But we also know that at some time or another everybody has employed hope as a strategy. I know I have.
And we’ve all heard the adage that “you get what you expect.” Which may be mostly true, but maybe not. I’m not keeping a spreadsheet on mine, are you? It’s funny how many truths aren’t tracked. Even so, I am a believer in expectations. But I also believe in hope and optimism.
Tom Rath told a powerful story about expectations at the beginning of his book, Vital Friends. Chapter 1 is entitled, “Who expects you to be somebody?” Rath tells the story of asking an important question of a homeless man named Roger. “How did you end up on the streets?” asked Rath. Roger tells a sad story of losing his best friend at work, which spiraled him down a slope from which he couldn’t seem to recover. One night at a bar after work ended being every night at bar after work. Eventually, he lost his job and his family. He wasn’t an uneducated man. He was a working engineer in a mechanical engineering firm. But at 32 it was all lost.
His mom tried to help him, but eventually she realized it was beyond her control. Roger ended up living in his car until the parking tickets stacked up resulting in the car being impounded. Now Roger was officially homeless. That’s how he ended up on the street. Rath asked one last question, “Who expects you to be somebody?”
“Roger paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t think anyone does anymore.”
Tell me expectations aren’t important. I’m a parent and now a grandparent. I can attest to the power of expectations on our children. Talk to any school administrator who gets it and you’ll hear the same thing. Kids who have no adults in their life that expect them to amount to anything…don’t amount to anything. Sure there are exceptions, but it’s not the rule.
We all have some experience in how expectations impact our own lives, too. It’s not that every expectation happens, but it’s funny to me how many I talk to and ask about this topic. I’ll hear things like this…
“More often than not, what I expected to happen happened.”
Maybe the exceptions are notable, but for many of us they’re still exceptions. I think Rath’s conversation with Roger demonstrate the power of expectations – and maybe the focus is on what others expect, but doesn’t that fuel our own expectations. A student with teachers who hold him accountable and encourage him performs well in the classroom. As their expectations grow, so do his. Success fuels more success. But Roger’s life proves that failure begets failure, too. It can take something remarkable to shift the tide in a different direction. Roger could have made other choices. The business man guilty of embezzling could have done better. They may have had their reasons, but they’re without excuse.
“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
But must it be that way? Is hope only a young man’s game? I’ll go you one better, is hope really a game?
No. Hope is not a game. It’s part of every life. More so in some than others. And do any of us doubt that the life filled with hope, optimism and expectation is better than the one that is ruled by hopelessness, pessimism and no expectation?
Then Why Don’t We Choose Better?
“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.” ― Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau figured it out. There’s a benefit – compensation – in disappointment. We’re not fond of disappointment. We want better. We hope for better. But when better isn’t what we get, or when ridiculous failure is all we get, there’s still a benefit. It’s our responsibility to find it. To figure it out. I suspect Thoreau was right, it does require both stillness or quiet and preparation.
Sports teams learn to win. First, they lose. Maybe often. Some never do learn to win. Those who do must figure out the proper response to losing. They can wallow in self-pity and blame teammates, or coaches. They can decide they need to work smarter, putting in more time in the weight and film room, to better their performances. Disappointment and adversity can drive performance up or further down. Life lets us choose which it shall be.
Losing hope and optimism lowers our expectations. Our performances and circumstances often cause hope and optimism to wane. Sometimes it’s our fault, sometimes it’s not. Responding wisely is hard. Responding poorly is easy! But it’s a pay me now, or pay me later scenario. If we refuse to pay the price for a wise reaction to bad things happening, then we’ll pay a higher price later.
What can we do to improve our hope, optimism and expectation?
First, stop listening to everybody.
Okay, I know you don’t listen to everybody, but you listen to way too many. More isn’t better.
You’re afraid you’ll miss something. So what? What if you do miss something?
Yes, I’m talking about all this online noise. But offline noise is just as bad…it just doesn’t come at you at fast and furious. Forget news. Forget blog posts. Forget podcasts, even. Yes, even this one if you want. Your welfare matters more than this show. Judge content on how well it serves you. Or IF it serves you.
That’s not easy because it demands you view things through a more critical eye (and ear) than normal. Most of us just go through our day with a high degree of mindlessness. We have these habits that we maintain without really knowing why. It’s just what we do, and how we do it. Stop it.
Start paying attention to your habits instead of paying attention to people and their content. Figure out what works for you. Some people enjoy a crash diet where they kick everything to the curb. They opt out of all email lists they’re on. They unsubscribe to all the blogs and podcasts. They even purge their unopened inbox. It can be refreshing to declare digital bankruptcy. Reboot your digital life if you want. Or slowly cut out stuff with whatever strategy you want. It’s your life and you should take command of it so your habits serve you better. The goal is to improve your life – specifically, to find ways to improve your hope, optimism and expectation. Let’s make that “positive” expectation.
Philippians 4:8 New King James Version (NKJV) “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
It matters what we consume, and what we think about. Our daily habits determine our life. Period. It’s not magic or a mystery. We are what we do daily. Why is that so hard to figure out? Because we hope our wildest dreams come true without us having to put in the work even though many of us know it will never work. Funny how we can have such strong false hope, while real hope can evade us. What’s up with that? Cause we’re often crazy as a loon.
It’s one of life’s biggest ironies how we can find hope in the most useless places and strategies and be so hopeless with real opportunities. It’s distraction. Foolish distraction. When the outside world is so noisy we’ve got no chance to have a quiet mind capable of building hope. Or optimism and expectation.
I often ask people to tell me the last time they consumed something really remarkable — not even life changing, but something that made a strong impact on them that lasted more than a day. Most people can’t think of anything. A few will cite some book or some podcast or some video that they remember. But remembering something doesn’t necessarily make it remarkable. It’s just memorable and that’s good, but it doesn’t make it impactful enough to change or improve your life.
There’s overwhelming anecdotal evidence that very few of us do things. Put 100 people in a room and give them a concrete plan on how to do something, like lose weight, make money, be more productive…and it’s probable that no more than 3 of them will do something positive with it long enough to accomplish anything substantial. We hope we’re one of the 3, but hope isn’t what makes those 3 take action. It’s determination. It’s expectation realized. Meanwhile, the other 97 have moved on to listen to somebody else tell them what to do. Always learning, never doing. Always consuming, never following through.
Second, do something. Different.
Most of us have a rigid routine. We don’t consider ourselves being so rigorous in our routines, but when we look more closely it can be scary how predictable we are. To be fair, we need routine in our life. It keeps us sane, preventing us from having to labor over small decisions.
You likely get up in the morning and do exactly the same thing every day, in the same way and in the same order. I do. I get up, relieve my bladder and immediately brush my teeth. I can’t leave the bathroom without brushing my teeth first thing in the morning.
I’ll bet your breakfast routine is the same, too. And there’s likely not much variety to what you eat for breakfast — if you even do eat breakfast.
You drive to work the same route, unless traffic forces you to take a different course. You likely do most everything the same unless you’re forced to do otherwise. The same gas station gets our weekly visit to fill up. The same restaurants get our dining out dollars. The same shirts and other wardrobe items get cycled in a rotation that could be tracked if anybody paid really close attention. Thankfully, they don’t unless you wear the same thing twice in a single week.
It all seems innocent and mostly, it is. But it carries over into our work and our relationships. We do what we’ve always done because it’s comfortable and habitual. But what if it’s not working as well as we’d like. What if your marriage isn’t what you want? Do you really think you can keep doing what you’ve always done and suddenly, your marriage is going to improve? Deep down you know better! But still, you’re like all the rest of us, you hope for a different – an improved – outcome. You think things may improve with time even if nothing else changes. It never does.
You must do something different. We all must do something different if we want to improve. That includes increasing our hope, optimism and positive expectations. And the best way to increase those things is to experience greater success in whatever we’re chasing.
Early in my career one driving force caused me more problems than anything else — my constant quest to find a better way to do something. Sometimes I’d encounter resistance from people who didn’t see the point in disruption. “Leave well enough alone,” they might say. “But wouldn’t it be better if…” I’d retort. I quickly learned many people are disinterested in figuring out a better way. Not everybody is bent toward improvement, but you’re listening to this podcast – a podcast named Leaning Toward Wisdom – so I’m betting you’re not quite like everybody else. I figure you’re chasing improvements in some areas of your life. Everybody should be, but we’re special.
Now changing things up depends on what we’re talking about. Wardrobe changes, unless they’re drastic and inappropriate, don’t likely matter much. The risk and rewards are small compared to your marriage. Changes things to improve your marriage need sober thought, careful consideration and conversation with your spouse. So get busy. Change some things. Improve. Stop doing what you’ve always done. Start hoping and expecting something better by behaving differently — by doing things better!
Lastly, don’t just think about success or improvement, pursue it!
Now it’s time for bravery. And this step is no easier than the previous two. They’re all ridiculously hard.
Friends, family and co-workers will unknowingly (mostly) lure you back toward the center where mediocrity lives. That’s not where remarkable happens though. If you want to be remarkable you’ll have to veer away from the beaten path where the hoards travel. Remember, well-worn paths are occupied by the average. That’s why the crowd is there. It’s also why you need to do something different.
Figure out your next step. Some will tell you to craft a full-blown plan. If you want, do it. But I think it’s overblown as “the way to go.” You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what will work and what won’t. I say give it your best shot by figuring out your one next step, then doing it. Then, figure out if it’s working to suit you or not. If it is, then figure out how to keep building on it. If it’s not working, then stop it and figure out another “next step.”
Here’s the important thing to remember: don’t act and just form a new habit that doesn’t work.
Too many people are exchanging one habit for another. They don’t improve. No increase in hope, optimism or positive expectations because they don’t experience any more success than before. But they fall into a new routine just as unproductive as all their past ones. Avoid that by committing to only hanging onto new habits that move you forward and make things better.
Gauge your action. How do you feel about it? What is your family seeing change? What about friends and co-workers? A major factor in figuring it out is to keep measuring your progress. Just don’t be fooled into thinking things are better because you’re doing something new – something different. Different can be better, but not necessarily.
A Few Words About Luck
Just today Jason Zook, founder of IWearYourShirt.com wrote an article for Inc. entitled, “It’s Not Luck, It’s You.” Zook doesn’t believe in luck. I do, but that doesn’t minimize his message or my agreement with most of his message. To disbelieve in luck is to disbelieve in outliers. Luck can be bad as much as it can be good. Outliers are real. Randomness and luck are part of the deal.
But luck – particularly good luck – isn’t a rule. Or the way to architect your life. Success takes work, and that’s the primary message of Zook’s article. There’s been a lot written about luck. Zook’s article just happens to be among the most recent.
Luck has this amazing ability to show up after all the hard work has been put in, and often times, after someone has lost hope that their effort will pay off. I believe that the only time so-called luck shows up is after you’ve gone far enough in whatever you’re working on that you deserve recognition on some level.
He believes luck is recognition of hard work. Mostly, I agree. And I agree because it’s the part of the equation YOU can control. It puts the responsibility on YOU and not on some randomness in the universe.
The illusion of luck can consume you if you’re not careful. If you buy into it, you’ll end up sitting idly on the sidelines, while the dedicated, hustling, hard-working people pass you by on their road to success.
Don’t hope for luck. Hope for your work to produce a better outcome. Be optimistic that if your current work won’t produce success, then the next work will. Expect to figure it out. Eventually. Expect success!
“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” ― William Faulkner