Don’t wait for things you think you deserve

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks ago. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

When I think about mistakes I’ve made, one of the common causes of my blindness that led me there is entitlement. I thought something was going to happen because I deserved it.

Not because I had done the crucial work of understanding that outcome was good for all involved. Not because I worked to get a clear agreement or that I negotiated for it by offering something someone else wanted. No.

When I’ve really gotten something wrong, when I’ve been blindsided or made a miscalculation, a lot of times I just plain thought something was coming my way because I perceived I was owed it. Maybe I thought I had put my time in or I thought I was close to the person with power. Sometimes I admire the idea of how good for me it would be if this happened, or my friends tell me how great it would be.

And hey sometimes you do get what you think you deserve. But I’m here to remind you that in those moments, we are so less assured. The world — a place of chance and chaos — hasn’t the time nor the physics to care much about what you think you deserve.

So people who spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what they deserve are a terrible bore. These tend to be people who are deeply uncomfortable with accepting blame — the worst of us will avoid blame with a psychotic self-reverence. If something doesn’t break their way, it’s the world’s problem, or better yet, it is some person or organization who is holding them back. They pray to their own self-image and do a lot of talking.

We all fall into the trap, at least I know I do. So remember, if you don’t get what you want, don’t blame someone else — not your clients or your employees or your boss or your neighbor. Did you put any extra effort to understand the full picture? If you cared so much about the outcome, did you have something to offer, a genuine case to be made? Or are you just there waiting?

I’ve been on a lot of planes the last month. After several days in the Baltic country of Lithuania, my wife had one of those divine vacations abroad, a mystical and breathless and brain-melting week in Morocco. Then I had a work trip to San Francisco. It all reminded me of a line from Jason Isbell (the Grammy-award-winning blues-country musician I adore) during an interview with writer and author George Saunders (a beloved present torch bearer of the English language). During the hour-long conversation (which I shared in a recent newsletter), Isbell says: “how did you forget you won the lottery?”

We all fall from heaven into the hands of luck and privilege, some lots more than others, but not a one of us hasn’t had some. Some will sit around waiting for more good fortune to come our way. The rest of us are too busy running ahead as fast as we can.