Learning to rethink my expectations of myself

A few tangential thoughts on hippos and horrifying sandwiches

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Here is an artistic recreation of a picture I drew when I was six:

It’s an image of a rather unsafe looking zoo featuring a bear, a strange yellow blob that vaguely resembles a lion and — in the center of it all — a hippopotamus. Although it’s hard to interpret, the looping purple line devouring the entire page is supposed to be its tail. It seems to be coiling into the upper exosphere, dwarfing the clouds and even the sun itself. I don’t remember why six-year-old me would ever think that a tail needed to be so long, but I do remember something else about the drawing. Something even stranger.

On the back, I scrawled the words — “One day, I’ll own a zoo like this”. Unfortunately, I meant it. With the impossibly long-tailed hippo and everything. I was rather vocal about my ambitions too — announcing my new goal in life to anyone who would listen. It took almost a year for me to realize that finding a hippo with a tail larger than the observable universe was maybe not an objective I could realistically achieve.

I like to think that I have since learned to set more attainable goals for myself. Recently, however, I’ve started to wonder if not much has changed.

Enter last week.

Three tests and two essays. All of them huge influencers on my final grades. Someone with a realistic understanding of what they are capable of would have prepared for at least one assignment ahead of time. As established by the zoo drawing, my understanding of what I’m capable of is not realistic.

I put off each assignment for as long as possible, somehow unaware that I was overestimating my future self’s ability. When judgement day finally arrived, I found myself about as close to being finished as I was to discovering a supernatural hippopotamus. So, with a mountain of work and a molehill of time to complete it, I did what any self-respecting student of this great University would do.

I pulled some all-nighters.

Two, to be exact. Back-to-back — I did technically pass out for a few hours into a psychology textbook one night, but I’d classify that as fainting, not sleeping. I struggle to recall many times in my life when I have felt more miserable. Unsurprisingly, my lack of sleep and constant cramming also caused me to go a little crazy. I started to move through life in a haze, not paying attention to anything around me. I stopped shaving and combing my hair. I walked two miles through 30 degree weather in a t-shirt and shorts without really noticing. Then, the morning after my longest stretch of studying, it happened.

It began like any normal sandwich. Started with some bread. Slapped on a little lettuce. Added a tomato. All ordinary stuff. Then came beans. That should have been a warning sign to my brain that I needed to disengage autopilot and think about the monstrosity I was making. No such luck. I was too tired and busy feeling sorry for myself to think clearly. I made my way over to the soda machine. Mountain Dew looked pretty good ….

I pressed the lever and a stream of carbonated sugar poured over my sandwich. In my daze, I had somehow forgotten to get a glass. The cold soda splashed onto my shirt, jolting me awake. People stared at me, concerned. The soggy mess of my sandwich slumped in shame.

I’d like to say that I started to laugh. That I realized the absurdity of the situation and error of my expectations on the spot. I’m sorry to say that all I did was sadly walk over to the trashcan and throw out my sandwich, my spirits crushed. Retrospectively, however, there is something kind of hilarious about the whole occurrence. I can’t be sure that I won’t ever set unreasonable expectations for myself again. After all, in college, cramming seems like an inevitability. But unlike a hippo whose tail extends into infinity, I hope that I can learn to scale back my expectations a bit.

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