Last night was our two-year-old daughter’s first-time playing soccer. For us, just getting to the field felt like an accomplishment. The directions from our map app were incorrect and then when we finally found the field, we had to weave through dozens of knee-high children to find our coach.
Once we found our spot, our daughter collapsed like a wet rag, teasing us with a tantrum, as toddler often do. My husband didn’t miss a beat and was quick to swoop her up and brought her to the line-up in front of the coach. For the next twenty minutes, he held her hand and ran around the field with her and helped her follow directions.
Meanwhile, our four-year-old son was playing a quiet game by himself which involved closing his eyes and running as fast as he could towards a busy street. After much intervention, I was able to convince him to warm up for his soccer practice which followed his sisters. We settled into a complicated game involving a soccer ball, zombies, farts, and sonic the hedgehog. I’m still not clear on the rules but I was made aware that I lost.
Then my husband asked to switch. I seamlessly replaced his hands, that were dutifully holding our daughter’s hands, with mine with such stealth that our daughter didn’t realize her dad was gone until she saw him on the sideline. The coach continued to encourage her to run, and I quietly let go of her hands and followed closely behind her.
Over the next few minutes, our baby girl went from clumsy toddler who didn’t quite understand why she was there, into a wobbly soccer player. After making several runs up and down the field kicking the ball without any assistance, she was brimming with confidence. I slowly made my way to the sideline as the team prepared for a scrimmage where I was met by our son who was now keenly aware that his sister was excelling at soccer.
The first goal she scored was met with the applause but because of where she was located on the field there were no high-fives. Then as the team worked its way down the field to where we were standing, another child scored a goal and applause erupted. Our daughter seemed a bit confused as she realized the applause was not for her but was otherwise undeterred.
Our son took upon himself to go congratulate his sister on scoring a goal, well after it had occurred. When she came near the sideline, he put his hand up to give her a high-five just as she turned chasing after the ball, resulting in him hitting her in the back of the head with much enthusiasm.
The team continued to play as our daughter paused trying to figure out what she was supposed to do. Our son’s cheers and smiles directed towards his little sister, seemed to spark an understanding within our daughter that his hit was meant to be supportive. The parents on the sideline were watching her pointing at the ball and telling her to go after it. With the clarity of expectations fading, she was free. Over the next few minutes our once shy girl, went into beast mode and dominated the soccer field.
For our daughter’s second goal everyone cheered, and she got a round of high fives from us and other teammates. Her smile was radiating confidence. It was clear that she was engaged and trying her best, even when she was still a little unclear of the rules. She was exceeding whatever expectations were placed on her and was speeding headstrong into the uncharted territory of all eyes on her.
While our son’s unexpected high-five to the back of our daughter’s head did derail her a bit, once she realized that his actions, however poorly executed, stemmed from an honest place of support, there was no stopping her.
Expectations are generally precursors to unhappiness – the only person we can safely place expectations on is ourselves and even that is only effective if we can honestly accept where we’re at. When I think about my daughter’s experience, she had no idea of what she was capable of, so the outpouring of praise from the sidelines lost context. But our son’s ungraceful high-five, rocketed her to the next level of performance.
Our son’s congratulatory but aggressive high-five to his little sister head was perhaps the most honest show of support she received during her soccer debut.
The expectation of praise is a good to have as a toddler, as it means you have people invested in your success enough to be taken for granted. As we age, the expectation of praise becomes a bit more complicated as external expectations often cause profound unhappiness.
The modern-day workplace is a great venue to witness the catastrophic impact of misplaced expectations. In my personal experience, the roles where I completely understood what was expected of me, were the roles I quickly outgrew. However, I seemed to thrive in situations where the expectations were uncertain and desired outcomes were moving targets, but by the very nature of these roles, it was difficult to excel when there were not clear expectations to exceed.
In many ways, workers can be like toddlers with the expectation of praise when they exceed expectations. However, bosses are not dutiful parents, and the praise that is misguided or insincere can inflate the ego provoking unsubstantial growth, i.e., congratulating someone for working more hours than expected instead of the person who was able to improve the process resulting in working less hours.
Like my daughter, I have received the occasional unexpected high-five to the back of my head which required a retrospective moment to be appreciated. But the ungraceful, or even painful demonstration of honest appraisal that is heartfelt is much more motivating than generic words of praise.
I have no advice on how to show honest appraisal of others. Nor have I figured out how to divorce myself from expectations of myself or others. But I do know that blurring the lines of what is expected is the key to growth and that recognition of these ambiguous accomplishments can catapult someone from ordinary to exceptional.