As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Happiness Equals Expectations Minus Reality

This post was originally published on

 I get to hang around a lot of students because I’m an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard Business School and also because I rarely turn down a chance to speak to students at any school or university. I have invited them to come visit The Grommet offices from time to time. In those experiences, I often find that many students feel deeply unhappy, worried, and insecure. They’ve been set up to expect an unrealistic “exceptionalism” by virtue of their upbringings. This is made markedly worse by the skewed perceptions of how fabulous everyone else’s life is via relentless Facebook posts.

Tom Magliozzi, better known as co-host of NPR’s Car Talk show, summarizes this problem in five words: “Happiness Equals Reality Minus Expectations.” There’s a snarky little “Wait But Why” post floating around the web that translates Tom’s thought into clever words and pictures to describe this particular brand of Gen Y discontent. It lacks any real data, but it’s well-reasoned.

We don’t all know what our passion is.

I find, when I’m on a speaking panel, that we’re all guilty of fueling this anxiety by telling students to “just find their passion”–implying that all will go well with rainbows and unicorns if you just get it right. That is bullshit. How do you know what your passion is when you’re just starting your career? That takes time. It might change over time. You might have five very different professional passions that gradually emerge. I once spent three years as President of an education non-profit. I never saw that passion coming when I was an industrial designer. But I loved it and I left a mark on my community with that labor of love.

It’s a burden to tell people that they just need to find their one true passion. It’s kind of like the horrible answer young people can get when they ask how to tell if their boyfriend/girlfriend is a keeper: “Oh honey, you will just know.”

Really? It is some lightening bolt that permanently alters your brain chemistry and you never have doubts again? I think not. You need to see that person in a crisis. How they treat their siblings. How they manage their career. How they help you with your career. And if they replace the toilet paper. That is not lightening bolt material.

Write it down.

When I was unhappy early in my life or career I would do one of two things (either in my head or on paper):

  • Write the resume summary of my current job. Was it shaping up to make sense with what I had done in the past or what I wanted next? Was I learning? Was I building a good reputation and network? Could I point to concrete results?
  • Write my holiday letter. Later, balancing a fuller family life, I would write my “holiday letter” even if it was July–for my eyes only. Just to reflect on the unfolding year and its events. Was I building the kind of friendships that mattered? Were my kids okay? Was I learning new non-work things? Was I feeding my creative appetite? Was I filling my responsibilities to extended family, my neighbors, my town? Was I exercising? (Seriously)

I usually found I regained perspective to either make a needed change, a tweak in my current situation, or an appreciation for the status quo. This is how I manage my reality minus expectations.

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