As a kid, I was mistaken for mature when really I was just obedient. I dutifully followed in my older sister’s footsteps. I was good at school, went to the same college, and assumed I was heading for an office job and a climb up a company ladder. There was always a lot of “work talk” in my home– all centered around pretty traditional business, where success was some type of recognizable prestige, be it leading a company or winning a Fulbright. Reinforced by much of society at-large, I never questioned these assumptions growing up.
We pick up attitudes about work and career from our family in two ways: from advice directly administered and from lessons we take watching them manage their own lives. Added together, it paints an image of what we think our family wants for us. It creeps in and becomes what we assume we want for ourselves, as well, becoming deeply embedded in our own notions of success. Many people have a hard time choosing a career because they compare their actions and goals to this composite of family expectations, consciously and unconsciously, as Barbara Sher points out in her book “I Could Do Anything: If Only I Knew What It Was.” To face these expectations head on, Sher asks her readers to think through what each family member expects, and then add up all of these expectations and pieces of advice. Once summed, the combination of expectations is usually contradictory and impossible to satisfy.
Articulating this unrealistic combination of expectations is the first step. It can help explain feelings of not measuring up, if like me, your expectations vary from your family’s. Most of my close family members center their lives around work and family. Since friends and hobbies have always been important to me (in addition to work and family), I quickly recognized that I have additional expectations for myself, more things make me happy in my life, and that these are well worth prioritizing too. This initially felt exciting. For a while, this was as far as I took Sher’s exercise. It was a happy warning to me that my life would look different than my parents’. It would be full of things I love.
It was easy to add new expectations for myself, but is proving much harder to give any up. Recently, as I’ve started to prioritize my balanced life and time for friends and hobbies, I’ve realized that something else needs to go. Given the limitations of the 24 hour day, I cannot devote as much time and energy to work and family as my family does, and add in friends and hobbies. Time for my full life of hobbies and friends has cut into my time for work. I’m lucky to work in a pretty 9 to 5 job, and I like it that way. I’m not interested in working long hours or weekends.
But lately, this attitude has left me feeling like a bit of a failure.
I used to daydream about being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross for my accomplishments. The specifics were always a bit vague, but it was certain that Terry was impressed. But my actual job, and likely any that fits neatly into a 40-hour work week, will not lead to the type of success that would land me on Fresh Air. To be fair to my family, they are pretty happy with me, and there is actually little direct pressure to do more or achieve more than being able to support myself. The expectation has become internalized, and I am now faced with the question: what does success look like to me? Will it be something worthy of an NPR interview or is the success in the everyday balance of work and play?
Since I didn’t have any answers of my own, I made my career group tackle the issue of family expectations at a recent meeting. The themes that emerged were both familiar and contradictory. Some of us felt that we were still trying to impress our parents and fulfill their expectations, while others voiced that parents had too few expectations. And some almost comical advice: one friend’s mom specifically told her not be a nun, a social worker, a lawyer, or the President.
We all agreed on one thing: it’s our turn to recognize the expectations we have for ourselves and to create our own meaning. And then, perhaps soon, it will be time to figure out what messages we want to convey when we become the parents.
Tell us, what did you learn from your family? If you need some prompts, here’s the worksheet that we used in our career group: download.
Image: Sigmund Freud and his therapy couch (via: neo-necon)