the tyranny of expectations

I did not have a great week last week.

Lots of things, large and small, went wrong in both my professional and personal lives.  My idealism and high expectations took a hit, and my patience suffered for it.  I faced the consequences of some bad decisions, I was disappointed by people, vendors, and myself.  My Bad Language Filter disappeared by Thursday, and I was randomly swearing in conversation at work the way I do at home.  I actively lost control of my temper in two different meetings.

Not my best performance.  I expect better of myself.

Author Lucy March‘s has a recent post on her blog about the No Asshole Rule, asking for reader stories of bad workplaces.  In an act of self-flagellation (or personal growth, depending on whether or not I’m feeling charitable toward myself), I read them all, looking for things I need to stop doing.  This one, from a library staff member named Catherine, made me laugh in that horrified way.

“The second job was supervised by someone on a temporary contract that had been there for two years. She had hated the policies and procedures of the organisation so she had ran the place to suit her personal manifesto. As a menopausal Gemini this was basically a reign of terror. She would yell across the Library at any staff member that erred. We all got to take turns as her favourite so she could sequester us and bitch about the rest of the team. It perversely created a very tight knit team…all united in protecting each other from her. I also discovered the zen of shelving. The worst thing I can think of is when she let a possum rot in the ceiling above the children’s area to make a point about communication with her supervisor…oh and she also thought anyone that noticed the smell was a princess. Through her I learnt that I loved working in library environment. If I could love going to work each day in spite of her I figured library was a good fit. I went back to uni and finished my business degree and have just applied for my Masters in Information Systems/Library Science.”

I’m glad to hear Catherine learned something from the experience.  That kind of self-awareness is something I respect, a lot.  I hope other libraries and librarians and administrators treat her better.  I am not, however, optimistic, as I recently heard an all-too-common story about a library in which the staff are largely silent during all discussions. They defer to the administrators, not taking ownership of anything or participating in the planning and discourse of the library. A new hire was baffled by it, and finally convinced her peers to talk to her, and learned that they’re silent solely because they’re terrified of being fired.  Their leadership has made it clear that anyone can be fired — not that anyone has been, but the threat is there — if they don’t get on board with the changes the administration wants to make. So they work with their heads down and quietly say “yes” to everything.  And as a result even people who could buy in — might want to buy in — aren’t.  They’re just trying to stay unnoticed, out of fear.

Two examples of what happens when you let power be a weapon, consciously or unconsciously.  Two ways in which leaders can destroy something rather than build it, or build something for all the wrong reasons.  Two stories of tyranny from leaders in libraries, one with rotting corpses.  Jesus.  What is wrong with us?  I know from my own experiences that negative lessons have as much power as positive ones.  I have learned as much about what kind of person I want to be, and in a smaller sense, what kind of administrator and leader I want to be, from seeing people do things I think are wrong, foolish, or despicable.  We each have a mental library of “I’ll never be like her” and “I will never, ever do that to someone”.  But having a good mentor, a strong role model, or a personal hero has so much more power and potential than having a litany of bad examples.  Having positive aspirations rather than negative ones — saying “I want to be like her, someday” and working toward it seems to me to be a much more uplifting way to live than saying “I will never end up like him”.  One builds, the other avoids.

Which do I want to be?

I know the answer to that.

My expectations for myself are high.  The expectations of others for me are also high.  Director of Libraries at 33, huh?  Must be a rock star.  The world seems to have looked at me and said “Go forth and be a rock star!”  Er, okay.  I’ll try.  I was once told during an interview process that my references “clearly think you walk on water.”  I was 25.  No pressure there, kid.  Be a grown-up, and possibly the messiah, QUICK.

I try to be as good as people expect me to be.  Sometimes I leap the fences and proudly look back in amazement at what I managed to accomplish.  But sometimes I hit them squarely with my ankles and fall flat on my face.  I know full well that there are times when my own expectations and not those of others put the bar that high, and when I don’t make it over, no one notices but me.  But sometimes I sprawl inelegantly on the ground in front of a crowd.  That crowd, many of whom depend on me to be a star and not a tyrant, deserves a better show, and I’m going to give it to them, no matter how many times I have to try.  I’m not aiming for miracles, just a really good show, and I’m going to succeed.

The kid inside me just needed a weekend to recharge and try to be her better self.  Monday’s a new day.  I’ll try again then.


  1. It’s nice to know you’re not perfect. We’ve all had days like you’ve had. A few weeks ago things were going rather rough for me at work, and I ended up swearing when chatting with some co-workers. I immediately apologized and lucky for me they weren’t offended. Strangely, it was after an all-staff meeting. So hang in there. Monday is a new day.


  2. “It’s nice to know you’re not perfect.”

    Ha. That’s the tyranny of expectations, right there — why the hell does anyone think I’m perfect? Why can’t I be “human but usually good at what I do”?

    Pedestals are terrible places to stand if you want to do any actual work…

    But. Yeah. Monday’s a new day.


  3. Look at it this way: Jesus was dead at 33. I’d say if you make it to 34, you’ll be just fine. 🙂

    (Though I’d avoid crowds until then…) 😉


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