I didn’t need to take a class with Dan Ariely to realize that managing expectations was the key to happiness. Instead, I gained this wisdom from the object of my fondest affections freshman year: Freeman Center macaroni. That Thursday night quest in search of magical pasta represented a much-needed respite from Marketplace tofu. But, over time, as I began to hype my weekly pilgrimage in my mind, I found myself less and less satisfied. It was the same, wonderful macaroni—just held to a different standard. My solution? I forced myself to anticipate that tofu each Thursday, only to be completely overwhelmed by that wonderful buffet line. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, as important as macaroni is to me, it’s quite hard to manage expectations for everything else. As is likely the case with you, I can’t artificially deflate expectations for my life after graduation. As much as I try, I can’t pretend like I’m fine to “settle” (whatever that means); to make matters worse, the lens through which I define success is probably setting me up for failure.
Historians often cite the last part of the 19th century of U.S. history as the “Gilded Age,” referencing the act of coating an object with a thin layer of gold—an act of decoration that feels more like deception. With this name, Mark Twain and others captured how the veil of prosperity masked an age of social upheaval. Essentially, they warn us of the dangers of subsuming to something that seems so shiny and appealing on the outside, for it may be a bit raw on closer examination.
To me, that message seems pretty relevant. Current events in Washington, D.C. have forced me to confront the tension that results from a fundamental mismatch of expectations and reality. It’s a bit jarring to realize the current inhabitants of an institution you aspire to join someday are less popular than hemorrhoids or Nickelback. I was wise enough to know dysfunction was regular in this town, but this distinct level of incompetence gave me a gut-check.
I realize, however, that my experience is probably more universal than isolated. For many of us, our time right out of college could become a personal “gilded age.” In pursuit of lofty ambitions that are vague and often ambiguous (“make” money, maximize “impact”, “change” the world, etc.), we rely on institutions that function as our de facto checkpoints to tell us that we’ve made it. Congress. Investment banks. Prestigious graduate programs. Fancy consulting firms. Elite professional schools. Perhaps it’s just basic human nature to crave validation of our trajectory in life, but whatever the case, I’m guilty of it, too.
At a moment when life seems reduced to the minutiae of cover letters, resumes and interviews, it’s easy to rely on institutions to lend fulfillment. It’s difficult to prevent the prestige of said institutions from creating the scaffold of an artificial universe of expectation. And, because of this, life on the inside is bound to be less glamorous than imagined.
Disillusionment seems like a rite of passage. It’s the natural result of the figurative rubber of idealism and naiveté meeting the road of reality. And, in and of itself, it’s not a bad thing. A healthy skepticism of institutions seems to be an appropriate impetus for progress. Where the danger lies, however, is the resulting cynicism that can erode the fundamental values that we stand upon. But Duke has trained us better than that.
As I stared at the Capitol in the weeks after the government shutdown, I came to think I was asking the wrong question. A mismatch between expectations and reality was not something to be prevented, but confronted. The solution was not a matter of artificially lowering expectations, like the Freeman Center macaroni had taught me. My charge was to align those expectations with objects I had actual agency over. I can control my ideas, my principles and my actions. I can hold myself accountable to high standards, and I can meet those—independent of the function, culture or agenda of whatever institutions I pass through along the way. And whether I fail or succeed, at least I know there’s nothing gilded about that.
Sanjay Kishore, Trinity ’13, is a policy fellow at Families USA in Washington, D.C. This column is the eighth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.