In this season of thanks, I thought I’d write a reflections kind of post. Recently, I had the fortunate opportunity to speak to a number of undergraduate students about their future career decisions: Should they go directly to graduate school? If so, should they pursue a Masters or PhD? If not, should they work? For how long? And where? Each wanted to know what the right path is, and the trouble is—there is no right path. We each seek our own path and do the best we can with the information we have in front of us.

These conversations led me to reflect on the expectations these students held for themselves. Expectations are a tricky thing. We try to live up to our own expectations or those placed upon us, and are not always successful. We might worry whether we meet expectations from friends, parents, bosses, colleagues, or an audience. We might struggle with expectations placed upon us from new responsibilities, a new job, or a new project.

Whenever I think about of expectations—those placed on us by others or those we place on ourselves—I’m reminded of a passage from Richard Feynman’s incredible book, Surely, You’re Joking, Mr.  Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character). Below, I’ve pasted a passage from Feynman’s book that I’ve held onto for many years that I felt was worth sharing. I hope you find it as useful as I have.

During this period I would get offers from different places—universities and industry—with salaries higher than my own. And each time I got something like that I would get a little more depressed. I would say to myself, “Look, they’re giving me these wonderful offers, but they don’t realize that I’m burned out! Of course I can’t accept them. They expect me to accomplish something, and I can’t accomplish anything! I have no ideas…”

Finally there came in the mail an invitation from the Institute for Advanced Study: Einstein…von Neumann…Wyl…all these great minds! They write to me, and invite me to be a professor there! And not just a regular professor. Somehow they knew my feelings about the Institute: how it’s too theoretical; how there’s not enough real activity and challenge. So they write, “We appreciate that you have a considerable interest in experiments and in teaching, so we have made arrangements to create a special type of professorship, if you wish: half professor at Princeton University, and half at the Institute.”

Institute for Advanced Study! Special exception! A position better than Einstein, even! It was ideal; it was perfect; it was absurd!

It was absurd. The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. The other ones were just mistakes; this was an absurdity! I laughed at it while I was shaving, thinking about it.

And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it!”

It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.

It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake—and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

Source: Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)
Richard P. Feynman, 1985, Pages 172-3.