I get into discussions sometimes about how people get all screwed up by the expectations of other people. In Hollywood we hear stories about how so-an-so’s dad was so overbearing and had such high expectations that so-and-so just could never live up and so resorted to drugs or some other self-destructive habit.
Or more common, but less sensational, are the millions of people who never achieve any of their goals because they are stifled by the belief that they have to live up to someone else’s expectations.
So here’s where you expect me to say that you should ignore external expectations and focus only on your own. Don’t keep up with the Joneses, Don’t let other people define your goals, Do find your own internal motivations for any activity you are doing, Yadda, Yadda.
Of course that’s what you expect. Because if you’ve listened to just about any success/self-help/guru/life-coach/psychic-savior/ guru out there, that’s what you hear.
Bunch of crap.
See, ignoring external expectations is not only impossible, it’s not smart.
Internal Vs. External Goals
I define internal vs. external goals this way: external goals are where your success will be determined – in part – by what someone else thinks. Internal goals are those where success can be achieved without anyone else rendering judgment that matters (not even a little bit).
And probably obvious is that external motivators are benefits (or the reduction of negatives) that you will achieve from the world around you, while internal motivators are purely those things internally that matter. An example external motivator is that learning a new skill could increase your salary; an internal motivator could be the inner confidence you have now that you know how to perform that skill.
To complete the explanations, external expectations are those things other people expect of you and internal expectations are what you expect of yourself. This is often where people suffer most because one or the other is often unrealistically high, or worse, both are exceptionally low.
You Cannot Escape External Expectations
Before I tell you why you need external goals and need to listen to external expectations and include external motivators, let’s get one thing straight.
You can’t escape them. They are everywhere.
Simply saying “ignore them” is like telling your body to ignore the cold when you are in negative 20 degree weather in your underwear. No amount of mind control will do it.
And if you work for a boss (or for you entrepreneurs out there, if you work for a customer), then you can try to ignore external expectations and goals only to find your financial condition deteriorating.
And isolating yourself from society doesn’t work either. Even Thoreau couldn’t when he went off to live on his own.
Who you are, in part, is due to external expectations.
What if you were never expected to go to school? Never expected to try hard? Never expected to tell the truth? Never told to clean your room? Do you think you would have just naturally learned these things?
From the time you are born, external expectations are thrust upon you.
And that’s a good thing.
Sure, it can be overdone and perverted. But so can meditation, exercise, religion, and everything else.
External Goals Are Good For You
None of us is perfect. None of us will always do the right thing even when nobody is watching. Hopefully your transgressions are minor, like forgetting to put your napkin on your lap at dinner.
External expectations are a requirement of a functional society. We expect people to abbey the laws. Not just the laws the other guy believes in. All the laws.
And setting external goals are good too. The easiest examples are those related to work.
Your boss comes into your office/cubicle and she says, “We have customer X coming in later today. I need you to create report ABC for me by 2:00. And it needs to be convincing.” This is clearly an external goal – it was “given” to you by your boss and your achievement of the goal is determined by the outcome – whether the customer is convinced by it.
So what do you do? Do you spend 3 hrs trying to “get internally motivated” so that this can become an internal goal? No! You get working on that report.
Assuming your boss is competent, this being an external goal has many potential positives:
- You don’t wallow around naval-gazing and wasting time trying to find spiritual self-fulfillment for simple report, trying to assign meaning to something with little spiritual meaning
- You might learn something by doing this report that you might never have been internally motivated to learn
- You save your company time by just doing what you’ve been asked to do, and that allows your company overall to be more productive which helps society (yes, I am an unabashed capitalist)
- This might be a more ambitious goal (being external) than you would have set for yourself (if it were internal)
- Your boss’s faith in you increases; not that you should be a “pleaser” but it’s clear that with increased confidence in you your boss will give you better assignments which eventually leads to all sorts of benefits
- You get honest, objective feedback about the quality of your work via the customer (external); assuming you can handle feedback, this will help you either to continue to do well or to direct areas of improvement
- You inspire coworkers to be able to achieve more ambitious goals when they publicly (externally) see you succeed at something challenging under tight time constraints
So stop avoiding external goals or putting internal goals on a pedestal. Both are important.
What do you think? Submit a comment below!