“Brandon, I like you, and you’re doing well, but I’m frankly disappointed. I thought you were going to come in and really set the direction for our enterprise architecture.”
I couldn’t help but get lost in that memory as a close friend shared with me that he was feeling terribly underwater in his work. No matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to measure up to their expectations. It was like he was on a treadmill that was set just a little faster than his fastest pace.
Not long before that, I’d been hired to do a job that I honestly still do not comprehend. Something about diagrams and TOGAF and enterprises. But it sounded fun and important, and promised me an entry point into software development.
As I started on my first day, I was repeatedly told how excited everyone was that I was starting. I was flattered to see that everyone generally regarded me as the person who was there to finally make everything better.
If I’d had a little more experience, I would have recognized this as a massive red flag. Ultimately, as you may guess, those sky-high expectations amounted to a stressful, unpleasant, and yes, disappointing work experience for all involved.
So I could most certainly empathize with my friend. And I shared a simple concept that had helped me come to grips with my own situation.
I told my friend to imagine, in one circle, all his desires and abilities. He had enormous capability in a number of areas. He’d essentially run a business by himself for years, managed projects, and led people. He’s also a solid software developer. He has deep marketing talent and a gift for communication.
Then I told him to put all the expectations of this client in a second circle. They were looking for people who could write code. Not just write it, but crank it out quickly and move on to the next thing. So of all his skills, his client only wanted one. The overlap between the two was minuscule. And he felt like he was being run into the ground.
Making up the difference
Even if you’re only using this sliver of your capabilities, you still need to meet the needs and expectations of your employer, client, or customer. So how do you compensate?
You could put in extra hours without telling anyone. You could try and work harder or faster, eschewing all the small niceties in your day that don’t constitute nose-to-the-grindstone labor. Or you could cut corners, and only do just enough to hope to fool them into thinking their expectations are met.
But it’s going to be of little use. There’s no secret extra hours, no corner-cutting, and no amount of focus that you can apply to make up the difference when expectations don’t line up with your goals and capabilities. Ultimately, you’ll either disappoint your customer/client/employer, or burn yourself out trying to keep up.
A better scenario
Have you ever felt really capable? Like a project was not just within your abilities, but right exactly up your alley?
That’s an awesome feeling, and it only happens in these high-overlap situations. When the work that you do aligns with your goals, falls inside your capabilities, and challenges you in the right ways, you’ll be able to completely delight your customer.
You must know your circle
Your side is by far the most important piece of the puzzle, and it’s astonishing how few of us really understand it.
Knowing your circle starts with asking yourself a lot of hard questions: What do I do that makes me “me”? What is it that makes me feel like a superhero? What do I want to accomplish? Who do I like working with? What do I hope to learn?
Understanding their circle
It’s possible that you have an employer or customer that’s as chaotic as a few of mine have been, and you may not even know what their expectations are. If that’s the case, you need to clarify what’s expected of you.
These expectations may seem demanding, things like “we expect you to turn product features around in less than a day”. Or they may sound noble or beneficial to you, e.g. “we see you on a fast track to management, if you’ll only do x”.
All of that is fine, if it lines up with your own circle. The danger is in adopting these expectations for yourself, migrating goals from their circle into your own.
Otherwise, you may find yourself forgetting your own goals and capabilities, and trying to live up to expectations that are not yours. This leads down a path of stress and disappointment.
OK… so what if they don’t line up?
You’ve mapped out your Venn diagram and realize that you have very little overlap between your capabilities/goals and their expectations. What now?
The most important thing is to be honest with yourself about it. But you really only have two choices: to change the situation, or try and change yourself.
Changing your situation can range from easy to very difficult. Changing yourself is essentially impossible, at least in the short term.
You know the person who was “frankly, disappointed” in me? After I’d realigned my expectations with him and that company, I was able to change my situation drastically, without quitting my job, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my career so far.
You don’t have to quit your job or fire your customer to change your situation. You do, however, have to be direct and honest with the people whose expectations are out of alignment with your own.
And while sometimes that will mean a parting of ways, the wrong strategy would be to suffer silently for fear of losing a job or client that’s making you miserable (and that strategy almost never works anyhow).
The lesson in all this
It’s easy to get mad at yourself for falling short of expectations. But if you step back, you can skip the self-judgment and objectively look at every situation as the fit between what makes you awesome and what people expect of you.
A recurring theme in the things I’ve learned over the years is that it’s futile and agonizing to try to fit into someone else’s model of who you should be. Understand what goes in your circle, and you won’t have to force yourself to “fit” anywhere: you’ll automatically start matching yourself to clients and customers who are looking for all the ways in which you’re amazing.