Playing the Expectations Game

The Eight of Cups is about unmet expectations.

“‘The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon’ Thoreau noted mournfully, ‘or perchance a palace or temple on the Earth, and at length, the middle aged man concluded to build a woodshed with them.’” —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

If you spend a lot of time making things, then you’re all too familiar with the expectations game Thoreau is describing. Who hasn’t started a project (every project) with big, big dreams, only to walk those back and produce a tiny, downsized version of what you set out to achieve?

We tend to see this scaling back of our ambitions as a failure—we just couldn’t hack it. For lack of talent or effort, we couldn’t make our dreams reality.

That’s exactly the wrong way to look at it.

A woodshed is not a bridge to the moon. But a woodshed is not nothing. It’s very much something—something that requires talent, effort, and a lot of sweat to create. It’s a physical object standing where none stood before.

Thoreau's cabin at Walden
Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

As Liz Gilbert says in her book Big Magic:

“It is difficult to create things; if it wasn’t difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be special or interesting.”

So creating something—anything—from nothing is an achievement to be celebrated, no matter how scaled back.

But let’s imagine for the sake of argument that you did build that bridge to the moon. And that you succeed on your first try. Then what?

Do you put your tools away? Do you call it a day? Do you call it a life?


There is a risk in getting everything you want. Lottery winners routinely go broke.

“What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” —Viktor Frankl

You don’t want to win the expectations game. You want to play. And you want to lose. So you can play again. As Austin Kleon says:

The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up everyday…with more work to do.

something small every day
via Austin Kleon

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