“When ‘Great Expectations’ Don’t Feel So Great” by Liz Gross

Those of us who work in higher education are very familiar with expectations. We set expectations for our employees, our students, the outcomes of events and initiatives, and committees. Often we’re able to develop the expectations ourselves, while other times expectations are given to us by a superior or a colleague. This works well in a professional context, but have you ever taken a moment to determine what your personal expectations are and who is setting them for you?

Over the last two years, I’ve had some amazing professional development experiences. I’ve started the path toward a Ph.D., presented at South by Southwest, collaborated with fantastic colleagues, accepted speaking, writing, and training opportunities, and landed a director-level position at a small campus doing amazing things. Over the last few months, however, I’ve been reflecting on why I’m doing all these things, and who I’m doing them for.

I believe that there are both benefits and drawbacks of being highly connected within the higher education community. The benefits are likely obvious, and have been documented over and over. The drawbacks, on the other hand, are less apparent.

When you’re constantly connected to the movers and shakers, it’s hard to resist the temptation to “keep up with the Joneses.” That little voice inside you might say: “He just landed an amazing speaking engagement, and she just published a book. I’m just as knowledgeable as these folks. I need to put the pedal to the metal and get myself out there!”

Once you manage to actually get yourself out there (through a blog, speaking gigs, published writing, or just being awesome), well-intentioned colleagues (and even strangers) will begin sending opportunities your way. Great opportunities, maybe even lucrative opportunities. And it becomes hard to say no. Accordingly, your stress level begins to rise. That little voice inside you might say: “Busy people are more productive! Just schedule everything, give yourself deadlines, and you’ll be fine. This is what successful people do!”

This is where I found myself this summer. I must confess – I don’t even think I took on that much. I like to be busy. I know people that have a lot more on their plate. But, I realized I was straying from my own personal expectations, which never included the trifecta of working a full-time job, pursuing a Ph.D., and piling additional consulting/free-lance work on top of it all. If I think back to where I was two or three years ago, I had one clear, professional expectation: get a Ph.D., preferably by the time I’m 30.

I’ve read that last sentence over and over. That one, simple expectation I had for myself is quite lofty. Considering I’ve been working full-time since I finished undergrad, it’s a very, very aggressive goal. And I would have been on track to make it, had I not let everyone else’s expectations get in the way. My 30th birthday is Saturday, and my advisor and I both agree that I could be finished with my proposal and conducting research by now. Instead, I have messy attempts at two chapters, a survey in dire need of revising, and the prospect of a very ambitious writing schedule to get back on track with my original goal. I can still become Dr. Gross while I’m 30. It might not make it before I turn 31, but I’m going to try.

That means I won’t be accepting new speaking engagements, writing more articles, or presenting at more conferences. Once I’ve fulfilled all of my current commitments, I’ll be on professional hiatus until I can get my business cards reprinted with those three beautiful letters after my name.

This is a very rational plan. But I can’t stop from thinking that disappearing from the “public eye” in higher education means that I’ll be less successful—using a definition of success I’ve allowed others to create for me. It’s time for me to set my own expectations.

For me, success probably looks a little something like this: working in a higher education environment, conducting research to further our understanding of the way students communicate and use technology; having enough time to dedicate to my thriving garden and creating delicious recipes from the produce I harvest; spending time with my partner; traveling the world; cheering on the Milwaukee Brewers; and finally finding time to give back to my community. I don’t want to become a national thought leader—I’d be perfectly happy as an involved intellectual.

Your vision of success might look like everything I’m backing away from. It might include running a division of student affairs, or dedicating your career to developing emerging leaders. What matters is that you create the definition yourself and set your own expectations.

Our highly-connected community has become hyper-connected with the advent of social media. If you take the time to connect, you are privy to what everyone is doing all the time. I fear that despite all the good that can come from this, it can also serve to inflate our sense of what a “good” professional does and allow us to drift away from our realistic expectations of ourselves. Today, consider taking time to reflect on what your professional life looks like. Are you pursuing your passions? Are you challenging yourself? Are you doing what you always thought you’d like to do? What are your expectations going forward?

Write that down. Then, jump back on Twitter and Facebook, congratulate everyone on all the great stuff they’re doing, and stay focused on what truly matters to you. I’ll be cheering you on.

Liz Gross is the director of university marketing and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and a doctoral student at Cardinal Stritch University. Follow her on Twitter: @lizgross144

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14 Comments

Filed under Career Advancement, women, Work/Life Negotiation

14 responses to ““When ‘Great Expectations’ Don’t Feel So Great” by Liz Gross

  1. Great stuff Liz. Happy Birthday (this weekend) – but more importantly- you are right on point about setting expectations that are real for ourselves. Thanks for this reminder 🙂

  2. Love this post Liz, and so many of your words resonate with me. I have a bad case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which often leads to me saying “yes” to many different things. I’ve told myself “I’m more productive when I have more on my plate” so many times, and often it is true.

    However, this year will force me to evaluate each opportunity with a high level of scrutiny, as I have started a new position, which comes with a large portfolio. I know that I won’t be able to commit as much time to each opportunity, so I will have to be selective. This will not be an easy task for me. I, too, look around and see what others in the field are doing, and put pressure on myself to keep up.

    I think something that will help to keep me grounded is reminding myself that saying “no” to something right now does not mean that it will be a “no” in the future. The things that I am saying “yes” to now will help me to be a better professional, so when the time comes that I can say “yes” to those opportunities I had to put aside, I will produce a better result. That’s a win-win situation! This will not be easy though. Perhaps we should be “opportunity overload” buddies, and check in with each other to help us stay on course?

    • Hi Kate, thanks for reading. I’m happy to check in with you. Part of getting to this point for me, personally, has been constant reminders from my mentor, dissertation advisor, and a classmate (who has dubbed herself my “critical friend”) to stay on track and keep my goal in mind. I’m overflowing with accountability right now – it’s amazing how our colleagues will help if we make our needs known.

  3. Liz–

    Thank you for being real and asking the rest of us to do the same. It;s easy to let our expectations and projects be dictated by what we’re seeing other people doing. We continue to do more with less and push out the things that are meaningful, motivating, or sustaining to us (like gardening and community service). We don’t know the full picture of the Joneses and what they’re giving up to have it all– we can only control our own commitments.

    I’m only a few months into my new position and this a great post to read as I figure out what to add to my plate and what to politely decline.

    Thanks!
    Becca Oberefell (@OberBecca)

    • Thanks for the support, Becca. I really think our personal expectations of ourselves will lead us to be the best “us” we can be…especially since I know there are always people out there (like you, Teri, AMK, etc) that will continue to push us to challenge our expectations of ourselves.

  4. Liz, so many of your words reasonate with me. Success is personal. Thank you for reminding us to define what it means for each of us in our unique circumstances.

  5. Liz– A great post, and very timely for many of us. I used to suffer from believing that out of sight meant out of mind, and I would say YES to every opportunity that came my way. But when my husband had some health problems I learned to say “not this time.” I think some additional (and unexpected) doors opened for me when I really thought about what was best for me and my family. I still have growing to do in this area, and I still have moments when I obsess about “keeping up with the Joneses.” But it’s better, and brave posts like yours are the reminders that we all need from time to time.

  6. Liz, I enjoy your writing and always look forward to reading your next post. By the way, you can be both…a thought-leader AND an involved intellectual. You have the heart and mind for it. Cheers.

  7. Pingback: Guest Post on Women In Student Affairs Blog | Liz Gross

  8. I came across your blog and really enjoyed reading this last post. I’m a final year PhD student who’s struggling with trying to define my own measures of success that don’t involve comparisons. To be honest it’s really hard to to when that inner voice is going “Well they’re doing X and you’re not, so you really should do something about that!” It doesn’t help when you’re in an environment where everyone is out for themselves (ironic, given my field is education) and collaboration sometimes involves the “what’s in it more me (i.e. what publications will I get out of this). I try to keep away from that ethos now that I’m focused on writing but it is hard, and your blog post was a timely reminder of setting goals in your own terms.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Eljee,

      I’m glad you found value in this post. It’s been months since I wrote it, and honestly, I still think about this topic at least once a week. Besides the fact that no one has the right to set our expectations for us, there are some tangible factors that make the “traditional route” seem silly. Our economy is changing. Every week or so I see an article about how folks with Ph.D.’s are underemployed or unemployed. We can avoid being one of those statistics by putting our head down, diving into our work, and finding a job in this new economy that needs our valuable skills. Whether or not it’s a tenure-track position in academia, we shouldn’t be judged because we don’t follow the prescribed road map…nor should we judge ourselves.

      Thanks for reading.

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