Why Life Doesn’t Go As Planned


man standing in forestI always saw myself having a Master’s degree, a six-figure, enjoyable job, a family, and a house by now. I always saw myself having traveled the world by now. I thought I’d be a professional athlete. I always thought I’d……by now. Why isn’t my life going as planned?

Do thoughts like these sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Most, if not all of us have planned life aspirations that, as time went on, have slipped through our fingers. Somehow, even with the best intentions, we haven’t landed all, or sometimes even any, of our expectations. Is this part of growing older, wasting our lives, not being able to plan well, or something else entirely? Why don’t our expectations match our future very often? 

Do Your Actions Match Your Aspirations?

We’ll start with a painful but necessary truth. Have your actions matched your expectations for yourself? Many of us have aspirations or ideas of how our life will turn out but don’t take the time to consider what it takes to make these aspirations a reality. Even if we have, we often underestimate the sheer amount of work that will go into it.

I’ll use a personal example. At age 18, I assumed I’d have recorded a few albums by the time I was 25. Beyond that, I always imagined at least one or two of them would have some semblance of critical acclaim. I’m now well beyond that mark without a single album to my name. What happened?

It’s pretty simple. I wrote music, but never made time or plans to actually record the album. I was always too busy. I kept putting it off until eventually, it slid completely off my radar into oblivion. Yet, during that whole period, I had myself convinced I was going to get it done……eventually.

Even if I had completed a few albums, I still would have needed to do the work to have it viewed. Where was I expecting critical acclaim to come from? It’s easy to fall prey to these lofty ambitions without realizing or internalizing the amount of work it will take to get there.

If your actions don’t match your aspirations, it’s extremely unlikely to pan out the way you expect. This is by far the most common reason our lives don’t map to our expectations. We need to match what we do with what we expect from life.

Are your expectations dependant on finite opportunities?

Another harsh truth; some dreams only have a finite number of spaces. The NBA only has a certain number of teams and positions. NASA only needs so many astronauts. Med schools only accept so many individuals per semester. If our expectations are tied to finite opportunities, many of us aren’t going to make the cut.

Now this may sound like I’m telling you to give up on your dreams, but of course you should try. The problem is, there are far more people who want to achieve certain dreams than there are positions available. There’s just no possible way to fit the millions of people who want to play sports professionally into a limited number of spots. We have to recognize the reality of these situations and be prepared to pivot if need be. 

If our expectations are extremely specific and finite, we’re highly likely to miss the mark. If we tie our happiness to these outcomes, we’re guaranteeing a huge number of people are going to be unhappy. If you happen to be one of the unlucky, your life isn’t going to go as planned. 

We can’t predict our opportunities or experiences.

You always wanted to be a schoolteacher, but your friend’s brother had a contracting business with a great paying job. The salary was outrageously high, it seemed like the best fit at the time. That was ten years ago. You always expected to be a teacher, but somehow you found yourself in a completely different world.

You always knew you were going to make it to the sports big leagues. After a phenomenal college career and lots of work, there’s been interest in signing you. Until suddenly, you broke your leg. It never quite healed back to what it was and all the offers dried up. Now you’re in marketing.

Sometimes life doesn’t turn out how we planned because the world creates unexpected opportunities or roadblocks in our path. We can’t possibly know what these will be beforehand, and they have the ability to derail our previous plans entirely. If we’re too rigid in our expectations, this can sometimes frustrate or annoy us. We may have a plan, but life won’t always cooperate.

We’re using external expectations

You always assumed you were going to be a doctor, but after the third consecutive year of being unable to get into med school, you’re starting to think it’s not going to happen. I was supposed to be a doctor. Now I’m a failure. But what happens if we examine the reasons behind that?

While plenty of individuals are using internal motivations to drive them, many of us are basing our life expectations on external resources. Maybe this individual only ever went to med school because their parents expected them to be a doctor. It’s all they were told from the time they were a child.

Often, if our internal and external expectations and values are misaligned we’ll feel disconnected from our purpose. If we don’t find a way to re-align our expectations with only our internal values it can cause a lot of grief. External expectations should never be our metric for success and planning if we want to be happy.

The Good News

Now for the good news; We don’t need life to go as planned to be happy. Having goals for our lives are useful, are necessary to create purpose, and can help guide us in the right direction, but being rigid about outcomes is a formula for frustration. It’s just not always going to work out how we expect. 

If we instead turn our attention toward the type of life we want to live and the kind of person we want to be, we have far more flexibility in finding happiness. If we derive our happiness from fulfilling values, instead of specific goals, we have many more options.

Sure, I don’t have a six-figure job like I planned, but do I even need six figures to be happy? Sure, I didn’t live up to my own expectation, but so what? Life is full of surprises and I never worked toward a six-figure career. So on and so forth. Don’t be afraid to question where these expectations came from and if they actually contribute to your happiness. 

Give yourself some breathing room and flexibility. There’s no way that life is supposed to turn out. Don’t add unnecessary frustration by comparing yourself to an ideal that doesn’t factor in your experience and what life has thrown at you. Instead, focus on what you can do in the present to be happier and set yourself up for a happier future. It’ll serve you far better than dwelling on expectations you had for yourself in the past, without knowing the path you’d travel to the present. 


Exercise Questions:

  1. Are your current actions building the groundwork for your future expectations?
  2. Are your aspirations dependant on finite opportunities?
  3. What opportunities or experiences have turned your life in a new direction?

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