Confidence and competence: Understanding, setting and adjusting expectations

“What did you expect?”


That’s the question psychologist Carl Pickhardt asked his patient after he came in angry that he didn’t get a good paying job a year after graduating from college. In their session, Pickhardt tried to make the young man understand that he put himself in his current position. Even though he had thought about his future after college, were the expectations he set for himself realistic?


Like most grads, he wanted a career that aligned with his new degree, that paid well, and that gave him the comfortable life he expected a college grad to have. Pickhardt explained there were two ways an expectation could turn out, and the patient was dealing with the less appealing option. Expectations are mental constructs that help guide us by anticipating changes ahead. If you have some idea about what is coming next, you can prepare yourself for the transition, so even if the outcome isn’t ideal, it doesn’t sting as bad because you anticipated its arrival. However, what happens when you get the unexpected instead? You experience emotions like the young grad — anxiety anger, confusion –because you didn’t anticipate that anything else could happen besides your ideal.


Pickhardt told the patient he had two problems. One, he needed to choose how he was going to move on, and two, he needed to get rid of the burden of having expectations set too high. Expectations are chosen, they’re not genetic. When you set unrealistic expectations, you are more likely to be “violated by reality.” But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream. Set your goals high, expect the most out of life – but do it in reality. The new grad realized he had set himself up for failure, and now that things weren’t going according to plan, he was wastng his energy being angry about it instead of adjusting his outlook. Pickhardt helped him realize it’s very realistic he could eventually work in his field, make a decent wage, and live a good life, but first he had to land a job, work his way up in the company, and probably financially struggle until that point.


Yesterday I wrote a blog, “4 Reasons You Should Get an Internship This Summer,” where I shared the stat that employers extended job offers to 72.6% of their interns last year. Students should be self-advocates, whether it’s making the decision to sit at the front of the class where they learn best or to increase their work load this semester by registering for an internship.  While it is important to be confident, it is equally important to develop competence which is based on specific actions you take—in class, in activities you are a part, in volunteer contributions and through work—to demonstrate that you can deliver quality outcomes through quality actions.   By the time you graduate, or spend time in your first job think about how you can balance both confidence and competence.  If you do, you will be realistic about your own expectations and they will match your competence levels as well as your track record.



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