March 03, 2024

Expectations can make or break a person. I had, and to some extent still have, unreasonable expectations for my life that have stretched me to the point of breaking. At the same time, the basis for expecting so much of myself holds meaning and identity. To give full accounting for why and how those expectations were set, I will briefly go back to formative years.

As a kid, as far back as grade school, I believed to be destined for greatness. No one promised me as much. I held the undefined belief out of some precocious sense of awareness for the struggles that beset my early life.

Our family owned property and lived between El Paso, Tx and Juarez, Mexico for several years until time came for me to start grade school at age 5. At that point, my parents decided to stay in America permanently to raise and educate their kids. I remember the day we moved to my grandfather’s house in El Paso felt like the beginning of a mission. We drove past the neighborhood park and the grass shone like paradise, greener pastures indeed. Yet over the years the language barrier was only part of a larger challenge of finding identity as an immigrant.

The conundrum in forming an identity was laid bare and experienced daily at recess in school – a child’s prime social time. The boys would play soccer and pick teams based on national identity, Mexicans vs Americans. There is interesting social commentary on how elementary school kids thought to do this but the result was a practical internal conflict. I would go back and forth between teams based on one or another rationalization of what I most identified with, inevitably being called a traitor. I was undoubtedly confused at the choice to be made. The outcome was to reinforce the idea that I was somehow different.

I wonder how much of that early sense of uniqueness was also enforced by measuring intelligence by grades and awards. It’s possible elementary school validated the idea that I was special and so I ran with it. In any case, I was an outstanding student, absorbing all subjects well and earning perfect marks. I will share another example of the difference school made in those early years. I was raised in Spanish and knew not one word of English at age 8. You may be thinking: “if he was so precocious why didn’t he pick up English on his own between age 6 and 8”. Well, I simply didn’t need to. At home we only spoke Spanish and the first two years of school were bilingual. Anyway, the second grade teacher, Mrs. Rocha, recognizing my capacity for learning, suggested to my mother a special program for extra attention to learn English. For the next year or so, I would stay after school to learn English through flash cards and other such teaching material. I am eternally grateful for the teachers that identified my capacity for learning and gave me the first of critical opportunities in life. Thus began a decades long journey to assimilate into American culture. It would be a psychologically dreadful process rife with social friction in part caused by the overhead of translating everything before speaking. I am introverted to begin with and was always out of sync within group conversations early on. Also, learning a language by flash cards is much different that living the language at home. With the former, you miss out on all the simple colloquial patterns and natural use. It wouldn’t be until college when life transitioned completely into English.

Fast-forward to college. I found myself in the heart of Texas, attending the University of Texas at Austin. I was again in a foreign land, only this time I was on my own with no financial or social safety net. I was exposed for the first time to vast wealth and social politics that others took for granted but that were entirely new to me. I was like a barely lit candle in the abyss, holding on to a belief that my life was meant for some greater purpose.

The pressure to keep up with and rationalize the contrast between me and everyone around me was too great this time. Thus began a decade long struggle with depression. The breaking point were a series of occurrences I won’t get into here except to say that at the onset a thought occurred to me that stuck, “If I can’t have it all, life is not worth living”. It was a pernicious idea that sucked up all my pride and stubbornness and eventually turned it against me. The problem was an expectation that was too unreasonable to achieve. No matter the successes that were to follow, they never felt like enough because they seemed trivial compared to what others already had. Yet, there was a certain doubling down on the same belief that formed a core part of my identity. I was special and meant for great things, even “everything”. In the face of dark days, I harnessed arrogance, even as it gradually sunk me deeper into depression. It was the only way I could fight back in those days.

“If I can’t have it all, life is not worth living”

Yet in some moments it felt that perhaps there would be a chance of success that would rescue my self-esteem and make me worthy of the company of greats. A couple years in, I was introduced to startups and began leading a related group of technology entrepreneurs. I met and was advised by Dr. Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and professor of entrepreneurship. I was greatly inspired by his presence on campus. It was as if a higher realm of participation in the world had opened and it fed the belief that I was about to do great things. I met brilliant young entrepreneurs that connecting me with other bright entrepreneurs. I felt that life was providing the keys to sustaining the unreasonable expectations of greatness. Yet, in reality, I was a terrified although ambitious, young man. I had no idea what I was doing. Graduating from college had been the only goal my life had until then been oriented towards. As that milestone was nearing, I did not know what was to come next. I had the promise of grandeur that starting a successful company seemed to offer but had little understanding of what it would take to pull off. Most critically, I wanted to start a company to save my self-esteem via financial success, the worst possible reason to start a company. At some point, I would like to share what I’ve learned about what it takes to start a company, and the right reasons for doing so, but I would like to be back on that path before any further pontification.

The final year of college thus completed and I had built up a significant identity around the expectation of exponential success. As the years further rolled on the opportunities to keep achieving at a rapid clip began to get undercut by the arrogance and immaturity of a young man with a chip on his shoulder. This is what makes bad expectations so destructive. Its not that the opportunities to manifest a life that lived up the hype weren’t there. I was presented opportunities to work with people who did go on to start and sell their companies and opportunities to pursue relationships that would have made great business or life partners. Also, I graduated in 2013, an amazing time for technology entrepreneurship, in retrospect. The problem was more with stubbornly holding on to expectations that tentatively held together an already tenuous identity. I was getting in my own way. Now to be fair, I was young by any standard and holding an existential crisis at bay by a rapidly changing life and times. No one prepared me or even gave me a hint of the kinds of adversity that would forge the person that writes these words today.

Eventually, through meditation and discipline, I would pull myself out of depression and begin to piece together an identity that encompassed a greater sense of meaning and an integrated self. Today, learning and reflection are an ongoing process in becoming conscious of the ways the expectation of greatness are still in play. I don’t know what the future holds, but the dimly lit candle in the dark abyss is still lit and now there is much more light than ever before. What I do know is that greatness will have to come gradually, through the sometimes indistinguishable progress made day by day.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms