I’ve walked out of every job interview believing I bombed it.
A year after I graduated from law school, I got an interview for the most coveted legal job in the country—a clerkship for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The one-year position puts you at the elbow of one of the greatest legal minds in the country. You get to attend oral arguments, see what happens behind the scenes, and draft opinions for the Court. The position is so prestigious that law firms around the country swoon over former Supreme Court clerks, offering them eye-popping bonuses to hire them once their clerkship ends.
I felt lucky just to get the interview.
As the Chief Justice’s assistant ushered me into his office, my anxiety cut to the bone. But once we started chatting, I quickly returned to an oasis of normal. Our conversation turned into an intellectual dance of sorts. We talked about legal cases and classic movies. He told me about his family, and I told him about mine. He laughed. I laughed.
I left the Supreme Court building with a post-interview high I had never experienced before. There wasn’t a single answer I would change. I had nailed it.
When I walked into the interview, I had wanted the job. When I left the interview, I expected to get it.
You know the rest of the story.
I waited for a month for the congratulatory phone call to arrive, only to find a rejection letter in the mail. I played the interview over and over again in my head, until the repetition began to resemble an old torture technique.
I had been rejected more times than I could count, but this rejection hit me particularly hard. My expectations were so elevated that when reality hit, I plummeted into a canyon of despair.
I know I’m not alone here. Most of us tend to have elevated expectations about the future. We expect to find a job that will inspire us to spring out of bed every morning. We expect to have a life-changing vacation in Southeast Asia, free of cancelled flights and bouts of food poisoning. We expect to “find our passion” and “make an impact.”
You might assume happiness can’t be distilled into a formula, but Google X’s Mo Gawdat has done just that. In his view, happiness equals reality minus expectations. The more you expect—and the more reality falls short of your expectations—the less happy you are.
This doesn’t mean you should be pessimistic and expect the worst. It also doesn’t mean you should be satisfied with reality as it is.
It’s okay to want things. It’s also okay to do your best to get them.
But there’s a difference between wanting something and expecting it. The universe owes us nothing. “We have a right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor,” as the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita instructs. When the number of people wanting the same outcome exceeds the available spots, some will inevitably walk away empty-handed.
Manage your expectations.
Even if you nailed the interview, don’t expect to get the job.
Even if you delivered a stellar oral argument, don’t expect to win your case.
Even if you wrote an amazing book, don’t expect it to become a bestseller.
This approach also has the benefit of pivoting your focus from the outcome to the process—which I’ve written about before.
When your only expectation is that you’ll wake up in the morning, alive and breathing, you dramatically increase your chances of having a really good day.