Setting Realistic Expectations is the Secret to Success

I’ll always remember how I got my first job out of college, which involved a long, competitive search process, nerve-wracking interviews and more than a few hours of lost sleep over whether or not I’d be picked for the gig—or, for that matter, if I’d even be called back at all. I was not the hiring managers’ first pick, so I was aglow when I finally got the call that the job was mine. Then the real doubts set in.

Can I even do this job? What would their ideal candidate do in this situation? How can I avoid humiliation and embarrassment when I mess up? That thought process infected everything I did in my first months: I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t speak up. I tried to perform at 100 percent, and if I messed up, I bent over backward in self-criticism.

Even though I knew full well that mistakes (and learning from them) are part of life, I thought I could be the shining star who gets everything perfect on the first try. My bosses did nothing to foster these doubts—they were nothing but instructive, helpful and caring. I had just convinced myself that I was the only one who could help me.

realistic expectations

It took me several tense, agonizing months to ease out of this mindset and start performing like an actual human being—that is, with originality, personality and spark. If I had known these challenges awaited me, I could have been more flexible, accepting and prepared—a psychological process explored in new research at Stanford University.

Rob Urstein, a researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, noticed similar feelings among students from disadvantaged backgrounds at the venerable university and set out to find solutions that would arm students with a more helpful frame of mind going into college.

Urstein and his colleagues knew from university data that students from low-income, minority or first-generation backgrounds are most likely to hit rough patches and drop out. Prior research showed that exposing incoming students to the sometimes-difficult realities of college life markedly improved their transition process and feelings of belonging and well-being in college. Urstein’s research applied that early exposure, called a “lay theory intervention,” to incoming freshmen.

The researchers sent materials to about 10,000 incoming freshmen from these at-risk backgrounds as part of their online orientation sessions at three institutions. These materials contained personal narratives from upperclassmen exploring their feelings upon entering college, which often centered around the idea of feeling out of place at first, but eventually gaining perspective, self-esteem and a sense of belonging over time. The targeted students were also told that intelligence isn’t fixed; instead, it grows and flourishes with time and effort.

realistic expectations

The impact on these students was remarkable. In one experiment, students exiting a high-performing charter high school reported higher full-time college enrollment rates. In another, students entering a prominent public university enrolled at higher rates—and stayed on full-time. In a final experiment, these early lay interventions raised the GPA of disadvantaged students at a selective private university. By institutional measures, these interventions reduced the achievement gap by about a third—a striking measure of progress.

These simple measures, most importantly, can be applied cheaply and efficiently in educational systems. Realistic expectations are inexpensive to spread, unlike rigorous standardized testing or selective tutoring programs, and seem to have reaped immediate benefits for students.

Urstein also sees implications for this new research in workplace training—like in my first job—or in helping service members transition to civilian life. Really, Urstein says, if there’s a big change you’re going through in life, realistic expectations can help ease your mind.

“There are many junctures in life where people face major transitions, and this work could help better frame the experience of what it’s like to make the leap into a new environment,” he said in an interview with Stanford.

Urstein’s fellow researchers and colleagues have even gone so far as to found a research center at Stanford called the College Transition Collaborative, which aims to disseminate these findings and work with higher-education institutions to implement early interventions for the students who need it most. By applying these lessons more broadly across the map and researching their effects more deeply, Urstein and his colleagues could have lasting impacts on how we prepare our kids for college.

realistic expectations

For young professionals—especially in our Instagram-driven, perfection-seeking cultural milieu—the fear of failure can be crippling. Though it’s never easy to express doubts to colleagues, I can say from personal experience that asking questions about new jobs and exploring your new surroundings in personal terms reaps huge benefits in assuaging those fears. All it takes is one coffee with someone you can trust in a new job to start that process of opening up and gaining realistic insight into your new reality. Asking questions like “What’s a mistake you made at work and how did you learn from it?” and “Who can I talk to if I need more training?” can fundamentally alter your success in the workplace.

It took time and some gray hairs for me to learn those lessons. It’s reassuring to know that, whether you’re entering college or jumping into a new job, easy solutions are within reach. All you have to do is ask.

Alex Gaterud

Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.