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Frustration, Expectations, and Reflection: A Trifecta of Leadership

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One of the most difficult people I’ve worked for told me the most influential thing I think I’ve ever heard. I consciously think about the following quote multiple times per week without fail:

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“Frustration is the result of unmet expectations.”

I agreed with him at the time, but I didn’t care about anything he said. He was a stern, to the point, and uncompromising person (or so I thought). As I’ve come to learn over the years, that’s not who I am. I like to sink into a conversation, really unpack everything there is to talk about, and then draw it to close with a nice conclusion. Where this former boss of mine was more of the “just show you the answer” type of conversationalist, I’m a “show your work” kind of guy. I want to go over all the details and tell you how I feel before we start really making the sausage.

What I didn’t understand was that I was experiencing the manifestation of his statement each time I had a conversation with him. I would walk into to talk to him with the expectation that he’d humor me in this long, drawn out discussion. Allowing me to flush out my thoughts so that I was sure I’d thought of everything. But that’s never how it went. It was always, “Hey, I’d like to talk about these things.” He’d sternly respond, “I don’t have time, I know the answer, it’s this.”

This repetitive interaction always led to frustration for me because I felt like he was expecting me to read his mind. Like he was expecting me to understand how he had come to that conclusion. I needed him to show me his work! Yet he rarely did.

There are a few things at play here. It’s been said that life goes in phases. I’ve read a ton of books that talk about understanding where you are in life and figuring out how to get where you want to go. But the best explanation I’ve read about this process I found in Jon Acuff’s book Start. In this book, Acuff talks about a pattern in people who have succeeded in their profession. He found that the people tend to go through five stages and they are laid out like this:

  1. The Land of Learning — The land of learning is where all of us begin this journey. We are soaking up everything around us and trying to gain as much of an edge as we can. If we broke this down into an age group, it would generally be from the time we’re adolescents through our 20s.
  2. The Land of Editing — Here is where we start to filter all the things we learn and apply the things that produce results. Just as a writer cuts words or sentences and replaces them with better ones, we too cut habits or behaviors that are simply dead weight, and hopefully replace them with new ones. This would generally be our 30s.
  3. The Land of Mastery — Here is where we take those previous forty years of experience and learning and honing, and put it to good use. Really fine-tuning your chosen craft. For the sake of being tidy, let’s call this our 40s and 50s.
  4. The Land of Harvesting — By this time in your life, you’ve likely accomplished the things that you wanted and you’re at the top of the proverbial mountain. If you’re not at the top then you’re really close and you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of those seeds you’ve sewn over your life. This is your 60s (or the last phase of your typical working life).
  5. The Land of Guiding — This is where you start investing your efforts in the next generation. Not to say that you didn’t do it with your children or co-workers previously, but you’re at the height of your understanding and knowledge. At this point, you’re prepared and equipped to start helping other people along their journey. This is your 70s (or the end of your “career”).

The cool thing about this model is that it breeds patience for someone like me who is about to turn 30. I often feel like I should be in the Land of Mastery. But when I take the time to think about the reality and I spend some time reflecting, I realize, based on this model, I’m still in the land of learning. I’m not old enough to not be called a “kid” by the people who’ve been in the work force for an extra twenty years.

When I look back on the time I spent with the boss I mentioned before, I also realize that he was only transitioning from the Land of Learning into the Land of Editing. So my expectations of him were unfair, which led to my frustration. And it’s quite possible that he felt the same way about me. He just wanted me to listen and soak up everything he was saying as opposed to critique it.

It’s easy for millennials (myself included) to look at the world and say that we just “want to make a difference”, or that our primary goal is to “make a significant impact on the organization” as fast as humanly possible. And while the above model is fluid and some people will experience different stages at different times, we have to spend some significant time reflecting on our current reality. Self-awareness is a really undervalued skill, and having the self-awareness to understand whether you’re in the Land of Learning or the Land of Editing or the Land of Mastery is crucial to managing both your frustration and your growth.

I thought back then when I learned what the cause of frustration was that I should be in the Land of Mastery. I knew what it meant to be a leader. I knew that I was good at it and I needed people to sit down and talk about everything at great length because I knew that’s how good leaders talked about things. I was 23 then. I was, and still am, in the Land of Learning. My expectations were off. Where are yours?

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