Before we go anywhere today, I’d like you to pause for a minute or two.
Think back to a time in your life when you remember others having expectations of you.
Perhaps you felt they expected you to settle down and have a family?
Or maybe you can recall certain people expecting you to pursue some particular line of work?
Please just take a moment to recall whether you experienced any of these kinds of expectations.
If you did – what were they? Who held them?
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Okay, we’re back.
Maybe you recalled a specific incidence of doing something (or not doing it) largely because of perceived pressure from other people.
I know I do, and I have a theory that talking through my own situation might help cast some light on your own circumstances.
Almost exactly 39 years ago (it was August 7th, 1979) I returned home to the UK after a fabulously exciting and enriching year, living and studying in California.
I’d won a scholarship from Rotary International. It covered the costs of spending a year at art school, after I’d graduated with a science degree in the UK.
And what a brilliant year that was.
I took every class I could – graphic design, printmaking, video production, jewellery design, woodworking – you name it, I signed up for it.
Then, to cap it all, I spent the last few months of my visa’s duration working for a travelling funfair (a carnival, they call it in the US) experiencing the many delights of rural Northern California, while also picking up the down and dirty basics of selling as I ran my own sideshow.
In my video class, we programmed an early personal computer (a TRS-80) and I’ve since realised I lived less than 25 miles from where the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were just starting Apple Computer, a business that 39 years later is worth a trillion dollars.
I was living in a part of the world with huge potential, in so many ways.
Leaving California was a wrench but – well – my visa had expired, plus the Rotary people had asked that I visit some of their clubs back in Britain to talk about my experiences.
I was of course excited to see family and friends when I got back, and for a while I carried my California experience with me, although, along with my suntan it soon began to fade.
Please don’t get me wrong. I know I lived a full, and rich life back in the UK, with jobs in advertising, and the challenging fun of starting and running a London ad agency myself. I’m grateful.
But, as I’ve documented elsewhere, for 30 years I also struggled with depression, severe at times, not even asking for help until I was 50.
When I’ve talked with my Mum about my battles, she’s fairly sure that I began having these emotional health problems when I got back to the UK from California, at the age of 22.
Now, who knows if I might have been less affected if I’d stayed in the USA? Impossible to know, now.
It’s interesting, however, to reflect a little on why I didn’t.
In the thoughts I gathered before writing for you today, I noted that settling down back in the UK was probably what was expected of me, but I then added an “I felt” – “I think *I felt* that it was expected of me.”
Next, I asked myself three questions, and I’d encourage you to do the same about a perhaps parallel time in your own life:
1. Who do you believe expected a particular behaviour/decision from you?
2. Can you be absolutely certain that they really did expect it, or might you have jumped to a somewhat false conclusion? Did you maybe just think they expected it?
3. Lastly, if it actually was true that others genuinely did expect things of you, how much did that really matter?
In my own case, the people at Rotary did indeed expect me to return to the UK, but the truth is that my responsibilities to them were pretty much wrapped-up after just six months of talks at lunches, dinners, and conferences.
What about other people? Did they expect me to return to the UK?
Well, it’s not easy to know.
It would be nice to think that some had hoped I’d be back, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure any necessarily expected it.
To be honest, most would simply have wanted the best for me, hoping I’d do whatever was going to work for me.
For many years, though, I believe I laboured under the illusion that I was somehow doing what was expected of me.
But here’s the thing.
Not only was I probably wrong, it might well have played some part in over 30 years of on-and-off depression.
My study of psychological well-being now makes clear to me how important it is to – as far as possible – independently determine your own direction in life.
I don’t think this means taking a completely selfish selfish approach to living, nor of course that you should cast others aside.
But I’m totally certain it does mean avoiding situations in which you become “locked in,” solely because of what you perceive as others’ expectations – expectations which may in any case be entirely imaginary.
I’m sorry this hasn’t been one of my more light-hearted posts, and please let me reassure you that this isn’t in any way because I’m not feeling light of heart.
And, of course, five years ago I did eventually return to live in California, which is working out pretty well actually.
(It only took me 34 years.)
This subject, however, does seem sufficiently important and serious not to make jokes about.
I encourage you, therefore, to think a little on this matter in the next few days, please, maybe asking yourself those three questions above.
I know I, and other readers, would love to hear about any reflections they may lead you to have.