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The Burden Of Expectation

Where we start, whether it’s in life or each new day, is a key driver of where and how far we go.

“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” crooned Bob Dylan. It’s a phrase often used to describe sport teams toward the end a terrible season, yet who manage to upset a leading team with plenty on the line. The underdog may be down on talent and seem to have nothing to play for, yet they are able to rise above their level and outplay a superior team. People sometimes need to hit “rock bottom” before they can begin the climb up.

The other side of this coin is the team or player who continues to win, and each time the pressure builds to maintain that success. Rare is the player who gives it all up in their prime at the top of their game (Australian tennis player Ash Barty, who battled depression throughout her short career, is a notable exception).

There seems to be something liberating about reaching the point when there is nothing left to lose (cue Janis Joplin: “Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose”) - where the only direction is up. And the burden to remain at the top is palpable and can lead to all sorts of negative emotions and consequent behaviours.

Continuing the sports metaphors, Barry Switzer said “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple”. This succinctly describes unearned advantage, or “privilege”. Further, once on third base, scoring is actually the result of another person’s hit. So even if you acknowledge the contribution of others in giving you a head start, your own progress can be both limited and tainted because they are not the result of your own effort. That’s an awful way to live.

The common element in all these cases is one thing we instinctively do as humans: compare ourselves to others. We look at each other’s clothes, possessions, occupations and social media feeds and position ourselves relative to them. While we may be perfectly happy with our car, seeing someone who we’d consider a peer in a better car leads to feelings of inadequacy and jealousy.

The fact that we compare based on the superficial and external (and in the case of social media, possibly the fake) aspects of others’ lives doesn’t matter. The driver of the fancy car may be suffering from terminal cancer, clinical depression or be in an awful relationship. We point to rankings in rich lists as a measure of someone’s worth. Our minds are ‘cognitive misers’ - we seek shortcuts and simple ways to explain complex things. That translates to selective comparison with others, rather than viewing life as a package that has both positives and negatives.

This leads to one final lesson from the world of sport, and perhaps the most important one: few successful Olympic athletes compare themselves to others. Rather than seeking to run faster than others, they are constantly looking for their next “PB” - their personal best. Every day they aim to be a better version of themselves.

The burden of expectation is largely because of a focus on others – our position relative to them, and their expectations of us. But that position is an illusion we create. How we view our starting position (in life or each new day) is entirely up to us. Being our best is about being the best version of ourselves.

"Envy is inversely correlated with self-examination. The less you know yourself, the more you look to others to get an idea of your worth. But the more you delve into who you are, the less you seek from others, and the dissolution of envy begins." - Lawrence Yeo

Conversation Starters:

What are the expectations associated with being part of your family?

Are these implicit or explicit?

Do they come from the family? the community?

What does being part of your family mean (aside from the financial)?

About the Author: David Werdiger is director of Nathanson Pearson in Melbourne Australia, an established provider of practical and appropriate solutions specifically for high net worth families. As a published best-selling author of Transition he has assisted many HNW families to navigate the complexities of succession planning, intergenerational wealth transition, and family governance. David is a family enterprise advisor, tech entrepreneur, family office principal, best-selling author on wealth transition, experienced non-exec director, and a dynamic speaker and educator. Find out more here


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