BY: ROB HOFFMAN
We score high on IQ tests. We demand equity and acceptance. Millennials are a generation of high ambitions and higher expectations. Yet depression is on track to becoming the world’s second most debilitating condition in the next four years. Have we set our expectations too high?
In 1977, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “cultural capital” to describe inherited childhood advantages: music lessons, sports, education, physical appearance etc. Success demands equal parts hard work and luck. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he pushes the concept of inherited luck even further with his discovery that 40 percent of elite hockey players have birthdays between January and March, or that of the 75 wealthiest people in history—dating back to the time of Pharaohs—14 are Americans born within nine years of each-other (1831 – 1840). Clearly, luck should not be discounted—it is equally dishonest to take credit for inherited opportunities as it is to dismiss them. I’m sure there’s a silver lining in this somewhere, but truthfully luck is a dismal concept for anyone with high ambitions.
The relationship between ambition and control can be tough to navigate. I believe there is a fine balance, and it’s important to come to terms with a lack of control and how that affects the outcome of one’s ambitions. A recent study published in Psychological Science concludes that fantasizing about the future can jeopardize long-term happiness. If optimism is crucial but fantasizing about the future leads to long-term depression, how can we manage expectations to maximize health and productivity? It might have something to do with the way we view control.
Looking back at Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, it’s evident that many advantages in life are inherited: you do not choose your financial background, height and facial structure, the city you grow up in or the people that occupy it. But gratitude is unequivocally yours. High expectations drive society forward, but progress is empty without appreciation. This is easier said than done, but it might help to remember how inspiration is born from a lack of control. You don’t discover a new band by listening to your iPod, you turn on the radio. Ambition is fluid and satisfaction is a range of perpetual summits, but there is freedom in acceptance.
Shawn Achor, one of the world’s leading researchers on positive psychology, happiness and human potential, writes about the benefits of active gratitude. His suggestion is to write down three things you’re grateful for every day. The psychology behind this is simple—consistent practice allows a habit to be absorbed into our subconscious, therefore, after a few months, you will subconsciously adopt a more grateful and positive outlook on life.
If you look back on your own life, it’s sobering to realize how many of your greatest pivotal moments were born from absolute chance, or at least from the unexpected. Maybe you were offered a career-launching job through an old high-school friend, or met your spouse because you were late for work and they happened to drop their wallet on the subway. These lottery moments in life are not your choice, but they do respond to hard-work and receptivity. Benign coincidences are sometimes a product of luck, but often occur simply because you’re paying attention. To make peace with uncertainty is to open your ears to the unknown. And to set expectations without room for compromise is like chasing a carrot on a stick through a field of corn, to die of hunger with outstretched arms and a stick protruding from your forehead. Nobody wants their tombstone to read, “Here lies_____, she really wanted that carrot.”