Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

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.


11 responses to “On The Art Of Lowering Your Expectations & Thus Having A Better Time”

  1. Thank you once again from Shores of Lake Erie. The words flow for me at 4 am to get dressed and go for a ride. I am 65 starting to cycle the last few years and you inspire your truth of change in myself .Enjoy Your day Bill

  2. Great words of advice 🙂
    This is how I’m now approaching any trip I do: take some time off, go somewhere, see what happens. I’ve tried planning and expecting things before but within less than an hour I would inevitably ditch the plan. So now I don’t even bother about planning beyond the very basics.

  3. Not sure how I feel about this article….. it seems, in parts, to have a negativity that I haven’t seen in your other writing yet the point seems to imply a positive.. hmmm

  4. Amy (Two Drifters) avatar
    Amy (Two Drifters)

    This post has humbled me as a writer and as a human.

    “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.”

  5. Thanks Tom for this article and enlightening me about the http://waitbutwhy.com/ website which I had never heard of before and will definitely be reading from now on.

    A conundrum for me this article. I am naturally a positive kind of person and always scheming and hatching new ideas of what to do next. .’ Happiness = Reality – Expectations’ is another way for me of saying ‘Eat a toad for breakfast then all day you won’t be disappointed’ which I think I have probably adapted from the famous quote by Nicolas Chamfort [1741-1794] and have told myself often over many years whenever I have actually been disappointed that something did not quite turn out as expected However, for some strange reason, this hasn’t stopped me from picking myself up and starting anew with as much optimism as I ever had..So I guess it’s a rule I do not live by but comfort myself with in a weird way in the face of disappointment.
    So, I do feel that to live by this lowering of expectations would somehow leave one lacking in aiming high with personal goals and challenges.
    From your link to this article from the quirky ‘Wait but Why’ chaps, I then read about Elon Musk in another of their articles, {what an incredible person] who could never have achieved his extraordinary goals if he lived by this rule of thumb.
    I can’t help feeling that is has more to do with personality types in the end and how one deals with challenges and disappointment in life.

    1. Thanks, Sally, for this very thoughtful comment.

      On reflection, I can now see something I didn’t before, which is that perhaps it is not so much that expectations can lead to disappointment; rather that it is helpful to understand when we are in a position to influence what happens to us (in which our expectations can drive great things to happen), and when we are not (in which our expectations are just as likely to lead to disappointment).

      In more concrete terms, I now approach my travels with as close to no agenda as possible. I set the starting conditions, then run with it from there, because I know that what happens on the way will have very little relation to what I might want to happen. On the other hand, when releasing a film, I fully intend to try to take over the world with it, because there’s no harm in aiming high – in that context.

      Does that make any sense?

  6. Hi Tom,
    Yes it does make sense [well, to me anyway] to truly experience travelling it’s best to stay un-blinkered and be open to what the path ahead throws at you – to a degree of course . But when being creative, like your film making for instance, then reach for the stars I say!
    Best wishes x

  7. Liked the article a lot, Tom! Enjoyed reading it!

  8. Blessed is he who expecteth nothing for he shall never be disappointed.

      1. Now thinking is involve?

Leave a Reply