Expectations (Five Short Stories)

David Cassidy seemed to have the best life you could imagine. A teenage heartthrob who sold out arenas and was so popular his shows turned into stampede risks.

From the outside it looked like as interesting and lucky a life anyone could hope for. Everyone loved him. He was rich. He was on top of the world.

But after he died in 2017, Cassidy’s daughter revealed that his last words were, “So much wasted time.”

It’s never as good as it looks.

Apollo 11 was the first time in history humans visited another celestial body.

You’d think that would be an overwhelming experience – literally the coolest thing any human had ever done. But as the spacecraft hovered over the moon, Michael Collins turned to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and said:

It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. It doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the moon going by, you know?

Three months later, after Al Bean walked on the moon during Apollo 12, he turned to astronaut Pete Conrad and said, “It’s kind of like the song: Is that all there is?” Conrad was relieved, because he secretly felt the same, describing his moonwalk as spectacular but not momentous.

Most mental upside comes from the thrill of anticipation – actual experiences tend to fall flat, and your mind quickly moves on to anticipating the next event. That’s how dopamine works.

If walking on the moon left astronauts underwhelmed, what does it say about our own earthly goals and expectations?

Thirty-seven thousand Americans died in car accidents in 1955, six times today’s rate adjusted for miles driven.

Ford began offering seat belts in every model that year. It was a $27 upgrade, equivalent to about $190 today. Research showed they reduced traffic fatalities by nearly 70%.

But only 2% of customers opted for the upgrade. Ninety-eight percent of buyers chose to remain at the mercy of inertia.

Things eventually changed, but it took decades. Seatbelt usage was still under 15% in the early 1980s. It didn’t exceed 80% until the early 2000s – almost half a century after Ford offered them in all cars.

It’s easy to underestimate how social norms stall change, even when the change is an obvious improvement. One of the strongest forces in the world is the urge to keep doing things as you’ve always done them, because people don’t like to be told they’ve been doing things wrong. Change eventually comes, but agonizingly slower than you might assume.

When the Black Death plague entered England in 1348, the Scots laughed at their good fortune. With the English crippled by disease, now was a perfect time for Scotland to stage an attack on its neighbor.

The Scots huddled together thousands of troops in preparation for battle. Which, of course, is the worst possible move during a pandemic.

“Before they could move, the savage mortality fell upon them too, scattering some in death and the rest in panic,” historian Barbara Tuchman writes in her book A Distant Mirror.

There’s a powerful urge to think risk is something that happens to other people. Other people get unlucky, other people make dumb decisions, other people get swayed by the seduction of greed and fear. But you? Me? No, never us. False confidence makes the eventual reality all the more shocking.

Some are more susceptible to risk than others, but no one is exempt from being humbled.

Dr. Dan Goodman once performed surgery on a middle-aged woman whose cataract had left her blind since childhood. The cataract was removed, leaving the woman with near-perfect vision. A miraculous success.

The patient returned for a checkup a few weeks later. The book Crashing Through writes:

Her reaction startled Goodman. She had been happy and content as a blind person. Now sighted, she became anxious and depressed. She told him that she had spent her adult life on welfare and had never worked, married, or ventured far from home – a small existence to which she had become comfortably accustomed. Now, however, government officials told her that she no longer qualified for disability, and they expected her to get a job. Society wanted her to function normally. It was, she told Goldman, too much to handle.

Every goal you dream about has a downside that’s easy to overlook.