On The Art Of Lowering Your Expectations & Thus Having A Better Time

There’s a fantastic deconstruction on WaitButWhy.com of why Generation Y yuppies are permanently dissatisfied.

It’s a long piece, and after you’ve finished this, I suggest you give it a read. (Especially if you are a Generation Y yuppie.)

In the middle of the article is the following equation:

Happiness = Reality − Expectations

This three-word quasi-formula is, in my humble opinion, a stroke of purest genius on the part of the Tim, the article’s author. It was used in reference to the generation of people, mainly born in or around the ‘80s, who grew up being told that they were somehow special and unique, that success and fulfilment was waiting for them, and that all they need do was reach out and grasp it – only to have an increasingly competitive neoliberal economy make it unattainable for all but a ruthless few.

This mindset is more pervasive than the article suggests. Take me, for example. While I did indeed grow up hearing such messages, I jumped ship before I’d set foot on the career path, the supposed first step towards the eventual success and fulfilment I deserved. Instead, I decided to try and cycle round the world. I had escaped. Right?

Wrong. The thing was that – along with my tent and and stove and toolkit – I had unwittingly packed that very same set of beliefs about my own special status in the universe, and that only a short period of hard work stood between me and fulfilment. The only difference was that rather than climbing a career ladder, I would be pedalling a lap of the planet, at the end of which fame, glory and gorgeous women awaited.

Added to that was an understandable but deluded preconception about what life on the road would actually be like – the result of spending a year planning a round the world bike ride, my head alternately in the clouds and up my own backside, fantasising about the years of heroic riding and ever-so-special and unique experiences that awaited me, with not a shred of real-world experience of bicycle travel to inform those fantasies.

The result? Reality minus expectations.

And my expectations had been so, so high. Stupidly so.

It turned out that the experience of trying to ride a bicycle a really long way mainly involved putting one pedal stroke after another, with little opportunity to see, do, or think about anything else – an experience only occasionally punctuated by something interesting happening. As I wrote in my first book Janapar (currently being serialised for free here), this realisation stood in contrast to “the journey I’d always imagined would be about sweat, strain, mountains, forests, wild camps, sunsets and the purest form of independence.”

Disappointment piled on disappointment – how hard and miserable the riding was, the diverging priorities of my riding partners, the fact that nobody back home seemed to give two shits about what I was doing, the failure of the filmmaking project to gain traction, the reality of the everyday experience of life on the road; and eventually the realisation that I did not actually want to be doing this, and that I was too proud to admit it.

I am not sure exactly where the turning point came. But it was many months before I was able to accept the simple truth: that my round-the-world bicycle adventure was being ruined by nothing more than my own expectations.

* * *

As an aside to these anecdotes, I want to put forth a set of thoughts for anyone who is in the early stages of putting together a journey like this.

Here’s the first and most important:

There is nothing whatsoever special about your adventure.

At least, not if you define ‘special’ as such a journey proving to the world that there is something uniquely noteworthy about you.

This is especially true of when it comes to making contact with those media outlets and potential sponsors you may be thinking of pursuing. Generation Y white male attempts to cycle round the world for charity? Old news. It’s been done a thousand times before, each time with a cheesy new brand name attached to it.

Here’s the second:

Immediately stop expecting anyone to be impressed.

Even if you succeed in becoming the centre of attention, you will be glossing over with meaningless glitz the primarily internal experience that your journey has in store for you.

You will be believing your own myth before the story was ever written. You will be setting expectations that your journey will fail to meet. And you will end up resenting it.

Be brave.

Be brave by separating yourself from the world of self-congratulatory braggers, quipping tired philosophies and Mark Twain quotes on social media. Go out instead and discover that a planet dominated by wordless humility is a far more inspiring thing. Do it for the sheer bloody-minded pointlessness of it. Do it for its own sake. Do it because you want to.

Be humble.

Experience the wonderful revelation that you too are one of billions of tiny, ineffective beings on a rock in space. Embrace your fate as just another creature meaninglessly journeying far from home.

By putting one pedal stroke in front of the other, I was doing nothing more difficult than that which thousands of children the world over are learning to do in their back-yards right now. What’s really so impressive about you putting one foot in front of the other?

Give yourself time.

Fail to comprehend the strange, slow shift in your psyche, and keep that mystery entirely for your own ruminative pleasure, knowing that even years later you will find it impossible to explain it meaningfully to anyone else, or even to yourself.

Spend time with the voices in your head as you ride another unknown road. Laugh again at the utter pointlessness of it all. Make contact with a world of people whose noble ambitions extend to ensuring the survival of their families. Pedal in total futility across expanses of the world in which absolutely nothing will ever happen, and revel daily in the joy of doing so.

Ensure you have no obligation to live up to anything.

Find joyous relief in the knowledge that those self-congratulatory braggers are fooling the world into thinking that there is something uniquely noteworthy about them, having bragged for so long that they now believe their own lies, corrupting beyond recognition the memories of an experience that only they ever truly had a chance of understanding.

There is no ‘share’ button for this solitary odyssey.

And anyway, there’s a better kind of ‘special’ that doesn’t involve anyone else’s opinion.

Expect nothing.

I lied. The most important lesson is this.

Allow the world to take you where the wind blows. Relinquish the delusion that you, a vulnerable stranger on someone else’s land, have any real control over what happens to you. Instead, let things happen by themselves.

Expect nothing, and you will never be disappointed.

This is a rule for life, by the way, not just for travel and adventure.

* * *

By the time I arrived in Africa, a year and a half after leaving home, I’d long since shed any beliefs that this journey was anything more than a succession of days I spent living the simple life of an observer on a bicycle as I passed through other people’s versions of normality.

I often find myself tempted to represent it as something bigger and better than it was, to fling phrases like ‘cycling across more than 40 countries’ around as if they actually mean something. But the reality is that they are nothing more than ways of getting attention in order to expose the deception beneath.

Now, when I’m planning new journeys, foremost among my concerns is to leave magnanimous amount of room for the unexpected. For the unexpected is almost always more delightful, challenging or memorable than the expected. And it is never disappointing.

A good example is my journey along the River Karun last year. I took the concept of following a river as a means to explore a country, gave myself a generous window of time, and boarded a plane for Tehran. This was literally the extent of my pre-trip planning. From that point forth, Leon and I rolled with the punches.

There were many. The journey was hard work. We found ourselves in real peril on several occasions. We neither found the true source of the Karun, nor dipped our toes in the Persian Gulf at the other end.

And you know what? None of that mattered one bit, because we’d set no such rules for ourselves, expecting nothing more than to experience each day as it came, clamber over obstacles if we could, or find another way altogether if we couldn’t.

The result was the most enjoyable journey I’ve had since all those years ago, when I finally abandoned the overzealous concept for my bicycle journey and embraced the amplified uncertainty of life on the road.

There was one expectation – that we would film what happened and eventually share it.

Karun: Misadventures On Iran’s Longest River – the trailer for which is above – is the result.

It would be hypocritical of me to have anything but the lowest possible expectations for how the film will be received.

Yet I would still like to invite you to partake of what is very much a misadventure film, which recounts what happens when you put the philosophies above into practice.