Do you have an expectation hangover?

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Does your fine taste in reading make you despair about the quality of your own writing? Perhaps you have an expectation hangover….

Even when we write in a healthy way — without editing while writing and yet spending plenty of time editing, later — it’s possible that we’ll be disappointed with our words.

I recently saw this feeling described evocatively, by the flamboyant American designer Isaac Mizrahi, in his wonderful memoir titled I.M

Here is what he wrote:

“Whenever I feel most inspired, I’m simultaneously struck by a feeling of sadness and exhaustion at seeing the distance left to go, the labor ahead to achieve anything near to capturing perfection on that level.”

He, of course, was talking about fashion design. But exactly the same feelings apply to writing.

(And don’t go fixating on his word perfection. Many people who struggle with writing wrongly label themselves as ‘perfectionists.’ The real problem, usually, is that they haven’t made writing enough of a habit.)

I think the more helpful way to view Mizrahi’s quote is to see it as reflecting our hope to do something important or useful or beautiful. We see the finished work and it doesn’t meet up to the wonderful image we’d hoped for — even expected — in our mind’s eye. As a result, we feel disappointed, frustrated and maybe even a bit ashamed. Our idea was so good and we have failed in our execution of it.

Speaker Christine Hassler has developed a term for this feeling. She calls it an “expectation hangover.” And, according to her, the symptoms include:

  • lack of motivation
  • lethargy
  • anxiety
  • anger
  • regret
  • depression
  • physical discomfort
  • confusion
  • self-judgment
  • shame, and
  • denial

Phew! That’s quite a list. No wonder so many people avoid writing.

Here are my five suggestions for how to handle your own expectation hangover.

  1. Allow yourself to feel your true feelings: The most commonly-used word many of us have in our vocabularies is should, as in I should be able to write better than this or I shouldn’t feel so bad about this piece of writing. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is that seems true to you. Understand that these feelings won’t “break” you and that you’re strong enough to feel crappy for a few minutes or even a few hours. All feelings pass and they pass sooner if we acknowledge them.
  2. Understand that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, not a one-shot deal: The more you write, the better you will get at it. It’s that simple. Professionals will always be at least somewhat dissatisfied with their writing because they know they can get better. Never believe you’ve hit the big leagues. People who do that stagnate. Even Margaret Atwood can still become a better writer.
  3. Welcome failure: You may be unfamiliar with the story of Norm Larsen,the self-taught chemist who invented the lubricating spray WD-40. Did you know that the very name of his invention celebrates his own initial lack of success? The WD part means “water displacement” which is what the spray does, but the “40” indicates he had 39 failures before he found a formula that worked. I love that Larsen celebrated his failures in his product name.
  4. External accomplishment won’t lead to internal contentment: We all want outside validation but as Pearl Buck put it, “many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” If you aren’t content before you achieve your big goal, you won’t be content after. Book deals, money, prizes don’t amount to squat if you don’t feel good about yourself. (Also, great writing is less likely to happen if you don’t feel good. Happy writers are always more productive.)
  5. Focus on your habits: I have a few that work for me: mindmapping, copying, pomodoros, if/then strategies. Your habits will likely be different and that’s fine. Just make sure you have the overall habit of writing daily, at least five days a week. Even five minutes is a good first step. The daily repetition is far more important than how much time you devote to the exercise.

I always take inspiration from the great National public radio personality Ira Glass. He has a terrible, nerdy voice and yet he overcame those odds to become a celebrated radio host. Here’s how he describes expectation hangovers: “All of us who do creative work … get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good.

“A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that.

“The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.”

As Ira Glass says, don’t let an expectation hangover drag you down. Just do enough work and, over time, you will get better. Much better.

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If you want to write your own book (or thesis or dissertation), consider getting help from my Get It Done program. Deadline for applying to the group beginning Dec. 1 is this coming Friday. If you want to apply to the program,  go here, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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Are you a graduate student struggling with your thesis or dissertation? I told Charles Duhigg I’d help him find someone fitting that description to interview for his wonderful podcast How To. If you’d like some free help, email me your contact information and I’ll pass it along to Charles.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help grad students learn how to write for research journals. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you manage your expectations about your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!