Setting the Bar Too High – How to Avoid Setting Yourself Up for Disappointment

There’s nothing wrong  with wanting the best from life, whether it be a top paying job, a perfect GPA or a massively successful business. What happens when we expect too much from ourselves though? In other words, if we set the bar so high that we accept nothing but incredible success aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure?

The environment we live in focuses on big success. You either go big or you go home. Many companies have the mantra that they will be everything to everybody. Think of Walmart, Amazon or Fidelity. These are massive companies which have made obscene amounts of money and are wonderful stories, but not everyone can be like them. If you’re running a business, you can emulate these companies  and certainly strive to match their success, but you shouldn’t expect it. The odds are just massively against you and if you equate success with reaching this target then be prepared for disappointment.

Or perhaps think of all the entrepreneurs who dropped out school to start incredible companies like Mark Zukerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Again, great stories but don’t expect to achieve this success if you drop out of college. Most people who start businesses fail and most people who do both (drop out of school and start a business) probably fail at a higher rate (does anyone have any statistics on this?).  We never hear of the guy who dropped out of school or quit their job to start a company which fizzled and died. It’s just not entertaining so it doesn’t get reported. This creates a bias in our minds because we only hear about the massively successful.

You may call me a pessimist. I’m not. I think people should follow their passion and try their hardest to be successful. I have two points:

1. The higher the bar, the less likely (but not impossible) it will be to get there. This is just the simple fact that we have to accept. Have a look at this distribution of income chart in the USA. It’s exponentially shaped meaning the higher you go up the income scale the smaller the number of people that make this amount of money. There are plenty of people clustered around the bottom because it is just damn hard to get to the top. Only a very select group of people get there.

2. When we equate our emotional success with some high bar measure of success, we’re setting ourselves up for an emotional roller coaster that will likely crash. In his book, “The Art of Learning“, former chess champion Josh Waitzkindescribes the feeling he had when he won and lost tournaments. As a child prodigy he had a lot of success and received a lot of praise such that he equated winning with being successful and losing with being a unwanted loser. Even the best sometimes lose, but because they lose, this doesn’t mean they’re losers.

There are a few simple steps to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment.

1. Don’t tie your self-worth with the success of grades, pay checks, or cashflow.  Who you are is not dependent on an external bogey. Are you no longer intelligent because you got a D in a course when you normally get A’s? Of course not. You’re a winner because you have worked hard, put in the effort and done your best.

2. Set realistic goals. If you expect your website to go viral the first day and takeout offers to pour in after a few weeks you’re sadly in dreamland. It may happen, but the odds are pretty small. Look at the past experience of others who have done what you’re attempting and use that as a gauge to what’s a reasonable goal over a period of time.

3. “No” is just short for “Not yet”. The set backs that we may perceive to be monumental may really just be bumps in the road toward a realistic goal. As Jon Kabat Zinonce said “You can’t stop the waves from coming, you can only learn to surf.”

4. Practice “kaizen which is Japanese for “imporvement”. More so it’s a philosophy of making incremental changes for the better everyday. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the goals you’re hoping to achieve won’t be either. Try to focus on small steps you can take everyday to reach your objectives.

5. Be happy with your victories, even if they’re small.

This clip from the 1987 movie “Wall Street” really symbolizes greed. It gets to the problem that arises when we constantly set our bar higher and higher.

The Talmud says that “the richest man is the one who is happy with what he has.” and I truly believe it. What are your thoughts? Do you have any examples of when you set yourself up for disappointment? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks.


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