The Joy Of Low Expectations: When Nobody Believes In You

After every tennis match I lost in high school, my father would console me by saying, “You just weren't good enough.” Those words stung each time I heard them. But they were true.

Over time, my dad stopped coming to my matches because I told him the pressure of his gaze wasn't helpful. With no expectations from my father, I began to play better. In my senior year, I made All-District after going 11-1.

As a father today, I'm not sure whether delivering harsh love without providing any advice on how to get better is the way to go. As a high school tennis coach for three years, my tendency was to always be encouraging and use losses as lessons for ways to get better.

On the one hand, having high expectations for my children might help them get the most out of themselves. On the other hand, having high expectations combined with criticism could break my children's spirits.

Giving Up On Expecting My Kids To Be Excellent Students

Here's a passage from an article called, What Happens After The End Of Affirmative Action?, that actually gave me tremendous RELIEF, not disappointment or frustration.

Calvin Yang, 21, is a Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA) member and party to the lawsuit against Harvard.

Yang’s résumé was something else: he was a varsity swimmer and varsity rugby player, and he’d been in debate club and No. 1 at his school’s International Baccalaureate program. He’d even launched his own initiative—the Canadian Youth Alliance for Climate Action—which organized the biggest climate protest in North American history. Over 300,000 people showed up, including Greta Thunberg.

In 2021, he made Canada’s Top 30 Under 30. He speaks six languages (including Icelandic and Chinese). Oh, and he scored a 1550 out of 1600 on his SAT.

But when he applied to Harvard, he was rejected. Same with Yale.

“I think there’s definitely a lot of prejudice and stereotypes against the Asian American community,” Yang said in an interview. 

Eventually, Yang wound up at Berkeley, where he’s now a rising junior. But he is still angry. “I’m fighting on behalf of Asian-Americans, and, I guess, Asian communities all around the world,” he said.

Don't Need To Try So Hard Anymore

Calvin's achievements are so high there's no way my kids will ever get there. And even on the off chance they become part of the top one percent in everything they do, they are still likely to be rejected by the top 20 private universities.

Therefore, my immediate thought was, why bother trying so hard?

Instead of stressing about grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, it would be much better for my kids to enjoy their youth as much as possible. You hear about teenagers committing suicide due to all the pressure to be great students. Screw that!

My kids should focus on activities they love doing instead of activities for resume-building purposes. They should not sweat classes that disinterest them. What's the point in getting an “A” in organic chemistry if they have no interest in becoming doctors?

Accepting as fact my kids will be shut out from the top private universities because they use more subjective admissions criteria brings me a tremendous amount of peace. And I hope as my kids grow older, they will find peace in this fact as well.

For I also have confidence there will always be public colleges like UC Berkeley that will be using more objective admissions criteria if my kids do well academically.

Over time, more public colleges will climb the rankings because they serve a wider demographic of students. Further, there's a deemphasis on legacy admission and it's harder to buy your way in as well as we learned from Operation Varsity Blues.

Other Ways Low Expectations Have Helped

When nobody believes in you or expects you to be anything, that's when magic can happen! Here are some ways low expectations have helped me live a better life.

1) Boosted health and happiness

While many of my peers in banking wanted to accumulate generational wealth, I was OK with leaving work with much less. Yes, I'm probably poorer than many of my peers who are still working in banking at age 46. However, leaving at age 34 improved my happiness and my health.

I was suffering from all sorts of physical ailments the year I left banking. Within a year, all my ailments and my white hairs went away. Now that I'm older, I'm highly appreciative that reducing work stress for over 11 years may have extended my life expectancy.

The quest for more money can be never-ending. How many folks do you know sacrifice their time and health for more money? And then when they finally achieve their target net worth, they end up wanting more!

2) Became more satisfied with earning less

In my podcast episode on how much MDs make at Goldman Sachs, my guest assumed I was making less today than what I did when I worked at Credit Suisse. I accepted her assumption but also mentioned that I was still happy with my earnings due to having low expectations.

When I left work in 2012, I just wanted to make $1,000 a month online to supplement our food and housing costs in fake retirement. But I made more, so I'm happy. To me, everything above $12,000 a year feels like winning the lottery because I would be writing even if I earned nothing. I've been recording podcasts for over five years with no sponsors because it's been a lot of fun.

Conversely, if I had expected to make $1 million in profits a year online, I'd be miserable. I would probably have to hired a lot of freelance writers and pumped out a lot of bland articles for search engine ranking purposes. If I had, today my joy for writing would be gone.

3) Boosted family satisfaction because I didn't expect to have any children

I didn't think I wanted children until age 34. But when we finally started seriously trying, our biology didn't cooperate for three years. Hence, eventually having one child through natural conception felt like a miracle. Then having a second one through natural concept two-and-a-half years later felt like another miracle.

As a stay-at-home father, I've listened to crying and whining multiple times a day for over 2,370 days in a row. Being a stay-at-home parent to babies and toddlers is way harder than working in banking.

However, I haven't gotten a divorce, checked out, or gone back to work yet because I'm simply grateful to have them. My kids give me tremendous purpose to keep writing and recording on Financial Samurai, for which I'm thankful.

4) Unlocked an unknown creative side thanks to low expectations

With no expectations from anybody about Financial Samurai, I was able to write about anything I found interesting. I wasn't afraid of offending anyone with my opinion because I was beholden to no one.

As a result, Financial Samurai has one of the most original portfolios of personal finance content on the web. This originality has helped keep the site afloat since 2009, while many other sites have come and died since.

With no expectations of me, I was able to write a lullaby called Cutie Baby, write an ebook on the foreign concept of negotiating a severance, and publish a bestselling traditional personal finance book like no other. If you were to ask me in college whether I'd do such things, I'd say probably not.

These creative endeavors have unlocked a new part of me that has made life more fulfilling. We all have creativity as children. However, due to the need to get jobs to make money, we often lock our creativity away and forget about it.

Having Low Expectations Is A Wonderful Gift

In the past, I've expounded on the importance of being in the top one percent in something for a better life. The mastery of something will provide you great satisfaction. However, the constant pressure to be the best in something is also tiresome.

By having low expectations, you're less fearful of trying. With less fear of ridicule, you might end up doing something way beyond your expectations.

Instead of getting life insurance as my top financial move to reduce stress and anxiety, maybe having low expectations should be the number one instead. I'm truly amazed at how much better I feel after finding out the achievements of the rejected Harvard and UNC applicants.

Of course, I'm still going to encourage my kids to do their best in school. But no longer do I expect them to get into a better college than I did. Instead, I hope they have a rewarding childhood and grow up to be good people!

Reader Questions And Suggestions

Have you experienced the joy of low expectations? How has having low expectations for you and your children helped you? Would you be angry if you or your kid didn't get into a top university despite having top academics and extracurricular activities? The Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action on June 29, 2023.

For a better life, pick up a copy of How To Engineer Your Layoff. It will teach you how to negotiate a severance package so you can do more of what you want. Use the code “saveten” at checkout to save $10.

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23 thoughts on “The Joy Of Low Expectations: When Nobody Believes In You”

  1. Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, has often told an interesting story about her Dad. Every day he would ask his four kids, “what did you fail at today?”

    It is a good question. Sometimes having low expectations gives you the freedom the do a lot of exploring and failing. And sometimes, that allows you to see life’s problems and opportunities in a completely different way. Considering Blakely’s success, it certainly worked for her!

    Great article Sam!

  2. Great article. As always.

    When I retired last year at age 53, I wrote a thoughtful thank you letter to my boss and coworkers. The gist was “Under-sell, Over-deliver” and stay humble. I always tried to fly under the radar and be a rock and deliver when it was required. Don’t talk about how good you are or what you have done in the past. Show them!! It worked well for me.

  3. Absolutely fantastic article, one of the hardest things in life is not taking things too seriously. After I went through layoffs at one job and was forced to leave another job because of a bad boss I realized that nothing lasts forever and I just needed to enjoy the ride. I also started saving and investing money like crazy so I could control my time.

    No one knows how much I make and when the subject comes up I just say a lot less than you and I am so grateful. No one can argue with that. I loved parts of my jobs, but when the cost is too high to continue the status quo for both children and adults it is okay to change the script of your life a little.

    Again awesome article Sam, love it! Thanks for sharing.

  4. This is such a great post – thank you so much for writing this one! When I was a child playing sports, after a game, race, etc., my dad would always ask, “Did you give it 100%?” and “Did you have fun?”. That was it – that’s all he wanted to know. Of course, the answers were always, “Yes.” So he would say, “I’m so proud of you!”. As an adult, I’ve taken on challenges that were really intimidating to me – but when I decided to focus on doing the work and enjoying the process and try to ignore the goal/outcome, I’ve been very successful and enjoyed the journey so much more. I truly agree with you on this – always strive to do one’s best and enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. Let the results take care of themselves.

  5. Great article (as usual) but I really feel we shouldn’t think of it as low expectations. It’s more to try to be the best you can and be grateful for life’s blessings.

    BTW not getting everything you want is LIFE and overcoming obstacles builds character!

    My immigrant grandmother was a widow with 2 children, barely scraping by on minimum wage in a working class neighborhood but she was a lady, always dressed well, always friendly, never cursed, mastered English, owned her own house, saved money, invested in government bonds, etc.

    She did not think why try I’ll never be rich I’ll never be beautiful – that is not the point. I tell my kids do the best you can and through hard work you will be successful in the things you are capable/talented at doing. And I tell them to be grateful because they are blessed beyond measure to live in America with good parents who care and are trying to raise them to be good, productive people. Pass it on!

  6. I was on my kids butt hard to get good grades and go to college. In 10th grade she told me ENOUGH, it’s too much pressure dad. I completely backed off and told her as long as she worked hard I’ll be proud no matter the result. It was amazing, after I quit pushing she excelled far above any expectations I had of her.

    P.S. her favorite class is organic chemistry :)

  7. Re: raising your children to grow up to be good people

    Probably the most challenging parental assignment of all!

  8. I homeschool my two sons because I want them to be able to embrace childhood and enjoy this precious time. If all I do is constantly try to “prepare” them for what’s next, as society has trained us to do, I’m simply teaching them to disregard the present moment. My kids learn about what they’re interested in. They embrace ideas, projects, interests, and goals by themselves, and my only job as their dad is to throw fuel on the fire. Their curiosity will take care of the rest.

    “My goodness, don’t you remember when you went first to school? You went to kindergarten. And kindergarten, the idea was to push along so that you could get into first grade.

    And then push along so that you could get into second grade, third grade, and so on, going up and up and then you went to high school and this was a great transition in life.

    And now the pressure is being put on. You must get ahead. You must go up the grades and finally be good enough to get to college.

    And then when you get to college, you’re still going step by step, step by step, up to the great moment in which you’re ready to go out into the world.

    And then when you get out into this famous world, comes the struggle for success in profession or business. And again, there seems to be a ladder before you,
    Something for which you’re reaching for all the time.

    And then, suddenly, when you’re about 40 or 45 years old, in the middle of life, you wake up one day and say ‘huh? I’ve arrived and, by Joe, I feel pretty much the same as I’ve always felt. In fact I’m not so sure that I don’t feel a little bit cheated.’

    Because, you see, you were fooled.

    You were always living for somewhere where you aren’t. And while, as I said, it is of tremendous use for us to be able to look ahead in this way and to plan. There is no use in planning for a future, which when you get to it and it becomes the present you won’t be there. You’ll be living in some other future which hasn’t yet arrived.

    And so in this way, one is never able actually to inherit and enjoy the fruits of one’s actions.

    You can’t live it all unless you can live fully now.”

    – Alan Watts

    1. Alan
      So well said

      1. The pressure from Asian american community to excel and go to good school and become doctor and engineer and earn money – is bad for the kids . These kids in their forty will not be happy , that won’t even know what a normal happy childhood , teenage and college years are.

      2. Lot of this comes from patents ego , bragging rights
      They completely ignore the stress and anxiety and fear of failure it causes to the children

      3. Your kid is not a machine to be raised to make money and become a part of the Cog in a machine which we call our society .

  9. Calvin speaking 6 languages as a North American is impressive. In America, for non recent immigrants most people just speak one language. And by the third generation, the American forgets their native tongue. How sad!

    I agree that society will view public universities in a greater light than private universities. The public already has found out rich and privileged people game the system, and most go to private universities. So there will be growing suspicion of private university graduates over time about their merits.

  10. Raising children in hypercompetitive Silicon Valley challenged my belief on education constantly. The main reason I immigrated to US from an East Asian country was I did not want my future children to go through its education system. I had to homeschool my first child due to medical reasons and she graduated high school at 16 but was not ready for universities. She finished 2 year college and still navigating if she wants to pursue further. My youngest is taking a gap year to explore his options with college majors since his interest shifted from software to mechanical engineering. The most difficult part of my journey was the pressure from Asian community since I can be viewed as a failed parent, haha. I have no regret letting go of my ego with my children and give them total independence to decide for their own lives. I am just here to assist them when they ask for help.

    1. I hope your daughter finishes college since she is half way through already and is still so young. Can you share why she was not ready for college? I’ve considered doing more homeschooling as we did so for 18 months during the pandemic. So efficient!

      I think it’s great you’ve been able to let go of your ego as it pertains to your kids. Not easy as parents want the best for their kids and will be asked where their kids end up going and what they end up doing.

      Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain my low expectations as my kids grow older too.

      1. She was not ready physically(lingering medical problem) and mentally to leave home at 16. She majored Bio, wanted to work in a medical field but Covid hit hard on her 2nd year at college. Her favorite lab classes were done through online simulations, so she lost some interests there. Also she saw how sacrificial medical workers were during Covid and realized she could not reach that capacity. She is working part time for now but has to change her major if she goes back to school. That seems daunting to her. Any advice will be appreciated.

        Yes, I ended up avoiding certain groups because all they talk about were SAT, tutoring, boasting about kids’ schools… Perhaps some of them were genuinely worried about my children’s future. ^^

        1. Thanks for the explanation. It sounds like she just needs more time to mature and get a custom to things. Time tends to make things get better.

          No need to rush things if she is not ready.

          One thing that’s helpful when you feel pressure due to comparison is to just recognize what the endgame is. And so long as you are loved and doing something that can you provide for independent living, that’s way more than half of the battle.

    2. As I grew older I noticed, perhaps a key reason to pressure children is for future “bragging rights” within the community. Parents going around telling what Uni their child is enrolled in or what position their child holds upon graduation etc. The unfortunate effect, children growing up with virtually no childhood memories apart from classes, tuition/ coaching, music, swimming, ballet etc.

  11. Michael Brody-Waite gave a TED talk that changed my life. The video is titled “Great Leaders Do What Drug Addicts Do.” In it, he outlines the 3 principles of drug recovery that allowed him to start and lead a company on the Inc. 500 list. He says:

    “…when I got clean, they told me there were three principles that were so important if I didn’t practice them on a daily basis, I wouldn’t live. They told me I had to practice rigorous authenticity, I had to surrender the outcome, and I had to do uncomfortable work.”

    The second one, surrendering the outcome, has stuck with me. I can only tell you how much better my life has become since applying it. To your point, if your expectations of the RESULT are non-existent, you will never be disappointed. However, this only benefits you if you have first done the other two things: be rigorously authentic and do uncomfortable work. Therefore, my expectations of EFFORT remain very high. I could not live with myself if I suspected I wasn’t putting my best foot forward in every area… including organic chemistry.

    1. “Therefore, my expectations of EFFORT remain very high.” I agree with this. I find it very uncomfortable not giving things 80% – 100% effort. But I used to give 100% on everything… and that has faded over time with the acceptance of “good enough.”

      Surrendering expectations of the outcome is huge.

      Will listen to that talk! Thanks.

  12. It sounds to me that you’re on the right path in your parenting. I hear too many stories of children who suffer from anxiety and depression because they just can’t handle the pressure given by their parents and have a constant fear of failure.

    Some expectations are healthy – finish what you start, study and absorb what you’re learning, complete your homework on time, don’t let fear prevent you from trying something new. But expecting straight A’s in every subject every year, playing 3+ sports year-round, winning every competition, being in 5 different extra curricular clubs, and being the most popular kid is going too far for a child.

    Instilling confidence, a love for life, core values, and resilience is way more important in my opinion for kids’ long term success in life than trying to being #1 in everything in the short term.

    1. Jamie totally agree

      I tell my kids you don’t need to get a 99 in a test
      But if your getting below 90 – the problem is not the score – may be it’s that you did not get the concept .

      Grades are a way to measure your progress and understanding , soba low grade doesn’t mean it’s bad , it means you did not understand or prepare pr put in your best effort

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