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Fear of Raising Expectations: Self-Sabotage and Mediocrity

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

God is solid backing to a well-lived life, but he calls into question a shabby performance. Proverbs 10:29, MSG

Mahershala Ali, two-time Oscar award winner, said that the difference between black and white men is the black men have to move through the world playing defense, continually looking for the moment when we will be disrupted. He understands this more than most, as a one of the few successful black men in Hollywood.

Others say you have to be twice as good to have half of what white people have. This might or might not be true, depending on what arena you’re in and its respective rules. Frankly, living life afraid of this boogeyman called racism is exhausting.

American history clearly shows that black people’s suspicions are not unfounded. After the end of American chattel slavery, the ambition of black people led them to build great, self-sufficient towns. Unfortunately, several of these black towns were burned to the ground by white racists because of economic competition or because the notion of black success cut the heart out of the white supremacist foundational belief: that black people were not smart and ingenious enough to do anything great on their own.

The sad reality is that the black families who endured this oppression had their dreams crushed. It is not uncommon for this type of experience to lead to a psychology of learned helplessness. Over the years, the process of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and dehumanization shows up for many black people in self-defeating behaviors. This behavior was adapted and modeled to the next generation of black people, and the cycle continued. In order to end the cycle of low expectations that shows up in self-sabotage and mediocrity, we need to identify the symptoms and provide tools for change.

The reality is that raising expectations carries a physical risk, but also an emotional risk. Another way to describe raising expectations is to dream bigger. Before anything can be brought into fruition in the physical, it begins in the mind.

Here are four tools you can use to begin to raise your expectations:

· Deepen your purpose and values

· Create an independent educational tradition

· Align your work ethic with your deepest desires

· Address your methods of self-sabotage

Deepen Your Purpose and Values

When constructing a building, the higher you go up, the deeper you have to go to lay the foundation. It’s the same way with your life’s purpose. In order to raise expectations and aim higher, you’ll need deeper self-awareness, deeper levels of courage, and deeper levels of focus.

The anchor for these elements is your set of personal values. It’s been said that to know what you truly want is the beginning of wisdom. But you must decide what you actually want, instead of what you’ve been told you should be pleased with.

As life gets more complex and responsibilities pile up, knowing what you truly want will be an invaluable advantage. Children instinctively try to stay close to their true natures. But when more is demanded of us, we tend to stop doing the things children do. We surrender our high expectations and stifle our imagination about what’s possible. Imagining other possibilities for our lives reminds us of the uncomfortable gap between who we truly are and our role in the world.

At some point, we all find ourselves in the midst of some assignment or commitment and ask ourselves, “What am I doing here?” Unfortunately, many people choose to stay in that place of confusion. Ultimately, they choose mediocrity because it’s safer. They end up living lives of quiet misery instead of lives of inspiration.

Perhaps the true reason for your work was blurred because you couldn’t connect the value of your labor to your reward. That leaves you open to misuse of resources. When your efforts align with what you truly value, you can access more drive and inspiration. Study the lives of high achievers, and you’ll find that their goals aligned with their highest values.

Areas to go deeper

Your Purpose—Re-write the purpose from Chapter 6. How would you change it now to make it more compelling and/or condensed?

Your Values—Go Back to Chapter 2 and choose two values that, in this season of your life, drive you to work hard. Discuss why they are important to you.


Go to Chapter 2. Your virtues are tools to help you live out those values. Which three virtues do you need to practice in order to go deeper in your values and your purpose?

1. __________________________________________________

2. __________________________________________________

3. __________________________________________________

This section is not about learning new lessons, but being reminded of the old lessons. In doing so, you will cultivate a self-sustained motivation.

Create an independent educational tradition

In the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a powerful keynote address. He brought into the national consciousness a term that is used to refer to academically inclined minority students who allegedly conduct themselves in snobbish ways: “acting white.”

In a culturally pluralist society, one of the main variables for success or the lack thereof is the culture of the group. Within the study of educational habits of subcultures, a theory emerged in the 1980s called oppositional culture, which attempts to explain the black/white achievement gap in education. This theory suggests that the gap is a symptom of the sub-culture’s rejection of the prevailing norms and values of the dominant culture—not just nonconformity within the educational system. In the case of black students, it meant acting white.

The theory accounts for the differences between black and white students in several ways:

1. White educators tend to provide black students with inferior education and handle them differently than white students.

2. Because of the “glass ceiling,” defined by the Department of Labor as an invisible and impenetrable barrier that keeps women and minorities from rising on the job ladder, white society fails to reward black people in a way that is commensurate with their educational achievement.

3. Black people often develop self-defeating behaviors that limited their ability to achieve academic success.

The research indicates that the phenomenon of acting white has greater social sanctions in integrated schools than in segregated schools. In other words, when black students conduct themselves in ways that are perceived as “acting white.” they lose popularity and the motivation to do well academically. However, this phenomenon seems to be most prevalent in racially integrated environments.

The entrepreneur, educator, and hip-hop artist, Killer Mike, in a 2019 interview, suggests having black children attend school with only black children until they are thirteen years old. His reasoning is based on anecdotal evidence. He attended all-black schools, lived in all-black communities, and only knew black politicians, police, and clergy. The majority of the public schools in his area were named after prominent black figures.

From his perspective, this experience instilled a pride in him that all black children should have before they encounter white society. Coincidentally, his experience is consistent with the research done by Harvard professor Roland Fryer and described in the paper “Acting White.” The researcher of the theory of oppositional culture, John Ogbu, suggested that white America’s traditional refusal to acknowledge the potential for black intellectual achievement instills doubts about black American’s intellectual ability, which produces an inferiority.

In the days of slavery, anti-literacy laws were put on the books because literate slaves were the ones who spread ideas about insurrection. Examples include Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey. An educated mind cannot be enslaved.

According to one historian, black people went from being completely illiterate in the mid-1800s to being half-literate by 1900. One of a slave’s main attractions to freedom was reading and writing, in addition to family rebuilding and land ownership.

In The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson comments that if you can control a man’s perceptions, you don’t have to be concerned about his actions. He contends that the modern education given the black people doesn’t help black people, because it’s designed to conform to the needs of their oppressor. The same goes for the standards and expectations for a black person’s life.

With education that is culturally uplifting and healing, black people have an opportunity to adopt new sets of standards and expectations. This type of change can happen when more black families adopt independent educational traditions.

An independent educational tradition is a model of education that does not solely depend on the school system for learning tools. Such a tradition is especially vital for communities where the school system is not adequately meeting the needs of the students.

The most important part of my education was sitting at the kitchen table and reading while my mother supervised me. That literally saved my life and is responsible for the work that I’m doing today. Because she gave me a higher knowledge base of what is possible, I developed higher expectations.

As a mentor, you want to be deliberate about what you model as far as your focus on reading and personal development, because the education of the children begins with the education of their teachers. There is always room to improve as a student, a leader, a businessperson, in your relationships, and in your finances—but only if you read.

What caused black people to develop an academic sluggishness? Malcolm X had an answer. From his perspective, the cause was years and years of being oppressed after slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and white discrimination. In addition, the educational system that black people matriculated through was designed to cause the young people to lose interest in school.

In addition, many parents who have formal education but saw so many barriers thought it fruitless for their children to reach higher. This ties in with the concept of learned helplessness, which occurs when someone suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from trauma or a persistent failure to succeed. It occurs when someone attempts to pursue a goal and has that goal blocked.

If every time I go to open a door, someone hits me—and if everyone I know goes to the door, and someone hits them—eventually, we all stop going to the door. Vicarious learned helplessness happens when you see those above you—your parent or your hero—try to open the door, and then get hit. Then I won’t even try to open the door.

After a while, even if the door is open, no one bothers to go through it. Whether it’s a promotion on the job, a business venture, or the desire to access financing for a house or a business—things that were commonplace a few decades ago—people who are affected by learned helplessness don’t pursue opportunities available to them, because they feel powerless.

People who experience having goals repeatedly blocked also can be prone to outbursts of anger and potential violence. The 1967 race riots all across America, which left eighty-three dead and almost 2,000 injured, occurred in part due to discrimination that African Americans faced. President Lyndon Johnson established an eleven-member panel called the Kerner Commission to understand what caused the riots. The commission determined that white racism was the underlying cause of violence.

Did we, as a society, learn from the Kerner Commission? We did not. Instead, we saw white backlash to black assertiveness. The anger persists until this day. Many societal barriers have been broken, but many black people still have an emotional and psychological wall from their experience of racism.

I believe that when your culture limits or restricts your ability to fulfill your purpose, you have to find ways to transcend the limitations. Whether you had a baby out of wedlock, went to prison, got divorced, or filed bankruptcy, you can go on to live a great life. I’ve been blessed to see people recover from all these situations and prosper through hard work, perseverance, and having high expectations of themselves. They were actually better for what they had to endure, because it made them tougher and more resilient.

The barriers restricting you are within you. People will hold you to your limitations, so don’t hold yourself to them. There’s always something in life that can cause you to bury your hopes and dreams, but the people who fulfill their purpose face their fears, take risks, maybe fail several times, and get back up.

Malcolm X advised that leaders of black people instill within young people the desire to further their education. How can this be done? Hopefully, by this point in the book, you’ve reviewed the tools on developing a sense of self and identifying your purpose, which should invoke/restore a self-sustained motivation.

More specifically, there are two things that I believe we need to look at in order to close the achievement gap: Increasing time on tasks in academic study and Creating a culture of high expectations.

Increasing Time on Tasks in Academic Study

Black educational consultant Jawanza Kunjufu has been working for thirty years to reverse the achievement gap. Kunjufu is best known for this book series The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.

Here are some statistics about the study habits of the races, based on Dr. Kunjufu’s research with SAT scores (which range from 0 to 1600):

The average SAT scores for Asian students was 1600.

The average SAT scores for White students was 1582.

The average SAT scores for Hispanic students was 1371.

The average SAT scores for African American students was 1291.

Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the score differential did not correlate with the parent’s education level, income level, or the number of parents in the home.

Here’s what the research showed about study habits:

Asian students study twelve hours per week.

White students study eight hours per week.

Hispanic students study three hours per week.

Black students study one hour per week.

What were the black students doing besides homework? They watched thirty-eight hours of television, spent eighteen hours listening to music, eleven hours playing basketball, and nine hours texting/talking with friends. My experience confirms this is an accurate picture of how black youths spend their free time.

Kunjufu suggests that, for every hour of TV, telephone, or video game usage, students should study for one hour. I can’t articulate how important this would be to closing the achievement gap. SAT results are not based on ability or luck. They are based on effort.

How a young person spends his or her free time is something that can be controlled. We can level the playing field. As a mentor, your question should not be whether your mentee is passing all their classes, but whether they are exceling and living up to their potential.

Spike Lee, the director of the famous film Malcolm X, commented that Malcolm X would be turning over in his grave if he saw the state of education of black children today. Something is wrong when ignorance is championed over intelligence.

The first step to change is truth. The next step is action. As a mentor, put a reading list together of all the books pertaining to their and your future life experience. Make a plan to work through all the books over time.

Creating a Culture of High Expectations

Do you truly believe the future can and will be better than the present?

In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama talks about the white flight that started in her Chicago neighborhood when she was in the first grade. She talks about feeling the disinvestment in the first grade, and how children have an intuitive sense that they are not being invested in.

When we look at young people today, we have no idea where they are going to be as adults. Mentees are at the mercy of the standards of their mentors and the environment those mentors create. You can demand excellence of the children, but if you don’t change the atmosphere in their house, they won’t be able to meet those demands.

This begs the question: Does a child fail school, or does the school fail the child?

We have a lot of great black history to learn and reflect on, but it’s also important to craft a great black future. For that, we need to set high expectations. If we operate under the belief that all children can learn, we can help them best by having high expectations. Children tend to rise to the level of expectations of their mentors.

Unfortunately, many students are surrounded by people who have low expectations for their students, based on their circumstances. Julian Weissglass, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that tremendous harm occurs in institutions where people are conditioned to take on values, assumptions, and practices that inhibit the learning of students of color and lower socioeconomic classes.

From Weissglass’ perspective, class and race are significant causes of the achievement gap. Class and race are closely correlated with poverty, teachers with unconscious bias, single-parent homes, and students who are disinterested in learning.

But these issues are no excuse for a child not learning. When the mentor has a high expectation for the mentee, it gives the mentee added confidence that their circumstances will NOT determine their potential greatness, and there is no ceiling on their potential.

How do we heal our expectations?

A. Belief in their Potential

The one who thinks he can and the one who thinks he can’t are both right.

Your role as a mentor is to help young people break out of that negative thought pattern by promoting a belief in their ability to develop and become better than their present situation may reflect. As simple as it sounds, you can make a choice that you will live the life you were meant to live—not the life that was given to you—simply by believing that you can.

Extensive research has shown that a major factor in fulfilling your potential is belief in your ability to improve. Unfortunately, many people believe that their destiny in life is predetermined and that they are limited, partly because of negative messages they’ve received from friends, family, and/or society.

Positive expectations can change their perception of a situation just as dramatically as negative expectations. Fixed mindsets hold people back.

What happens if you think that your personality and intelligence is something you can develop and improve? Research shows that with education and consistent practice, you can change your memory, judgment, and attention. Your ability is not like a hand you’re dealt in a poker game. It’s something you can cultivate through your efforts, although it can take years of passion, toil, and training.

The main factor in achieving expertise is meaningful engagement.

Your opinion of yourself profoundly affects your life. How does the power of belief transform your psychology?

Growth mindsets free people to pursue what they value, with passion and resilience. People can learn these mindsets to break out of self-defeating patterns.

There are five factors that operate in mentors that have high expectations of their mentees.

1. Warm environment—Mentors create a warm climate for the mentee through what they say verbally and non-verbally. They are nicer to them than they are to people of whom they expect less.

2. Added input—Mentors teach more to mentees from whom they expect more, compared to those for whom they have lower expectations.

3. Chance to respond—Mentors give mentees for whom they have higher expectations a greater opportunity to speak and more help to shape their thoughts and perspectives carefully.

4. Thorough feedback—If more is expected of the mentee, there is greater praise when a satisfactory response is given and also a more distinguished response when an unsatisfactory answer is given. One of the ways that mentors demonstrate low expectations of someone is by allowing them to get away with a low-quality answer or low-quality performance.

5. This is the most important piece: accountability. If we don’t hold the mentees accountable when they fall short of expectations, then there is no point in having expectations.

Align your daily work ethic with your deepest desires

Do you have to have the courage to live the life that you’ve designed? If you want to manifest your destiny, you have to think more about the opportunity available to you than about the work it will take. You also have to choose the environment that’s optimal for your progress.

Recognize the opportunity available to you, and teach your mentee to do the same. In the Scriptures, it says, “Ask, and it will be given to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7, NIV)

In other words, you can’t get what you’re not pursuing.

Tools to Improving Your Work Ethic

If you want to lead others to higher ground, you must be the first to go there. Regardless of the position you hold, your capacity to inspire others to do more, dream more, and become more starts with your capacity to do so yourself. Here are few thoughts:

1. Don’t celebrate prematurely when you are trying to break cycles and raise the standards. Proportionate celebration means you celebrate to the extent that the ultimate goal has been reached, while staying engaged in the process. Don’t celebrate until you are content with the progress made; enjoy that celebratory moment when you have reached a goal, and then work to make it better.

2. Never hope for more you are willing to work for. Consistent with raising expectations is the improving your willingness to work hard. When you find yourself daydreaming of what could be, ask yourself what you could be doing at the moment to bring the dream into fruition.

3. Value obscurity. The cost of notoriety is safety, because you can lose credibility when your visibility surpasses your ability. If you want to raise your expectations and break cycles, you will probably stumble. It’s easier to do when there are not as many eyes on you. When you are more visible than you are capable, you’ll no longer be credible. How many times do we see the “overnight success” who, upon arrival, has stories of years and years of toiling away? Instead of constant self-promotion, they spent a tremendous amount of time quietly honing their craft and building a solid foundation. This is what leads to staying power.

“Don’t work yourself into the spotlight; don’t push your way into the place of prominence. It’s better to be promoted to a place of honor than face humiliation by being demoted.” (Proverbs 25:6-7, MSG)

4. Do the autopsy of your past failures. I believe that the second half of your life can be better than the first half if you take the time to learn the lessons. This can only occur when you reflect on your past and come to some new conclusions.

5. Recognize when you are not living in a manner worthy of who you are. Your worth and value is not predicated upon your performance, but if your performance is not in line with your potential, you are selling yourself short. There are some glories you don’t get through association; you can only get then through dedication.

6. Find the standard of work needed to accomplish your goals. If 5 percent of people survived a terminal illness, we have to study those people to see what they did to survive. Regardless of the possible outcome, give yourself the best chance to succeed. It’s not about running with people who break cycles. It’s also about modeling their work ethic.

7. As a mentor, it’s important to recognize that providing general feedback reinforces shortcomings. Showing specifically where improvement can be made will keep the mentee feeling empowered. Pointing out exactly what he can do to improve performance will keep him empowered. Be mindful that those with low self-esteem are more likely to overgeneralize for the feedback they receive, so be mindful of your words.

Reflection: Prime the Pump of Your Desires:

1. What advice would you give to your best friend about how to approach this situation?

2. On your last days on this Earth, what would you wish you had done? Envision your funeral. Will you be thinking, I wish I had or I’m glad I did?

3. Imagine standing before God. What do you want to the final judgment of your life’s choices to be?

Address your methods of self-sabotage

One black educator tells a story of a high school student she worked with. The young lady was a brilliant student who demonstrated remarkable potential. The educator took her under her wing and helped her along her high school journey. She began to show the girl all the possibilities for her future.

Unbeknownst to the mentor, the young girl was afraid. When she was ready to leave for college, she got pregnant. She suffered the painful experience of a miscarriage. Six months later, she got pregnant again. She had a son.

The educator, along with the high school principal, wanted to see what they could do to help the young lady move past this situation and continue her academic journey. The young lady was so bright, she was able to test out of her senior year of high school. She ended up going to college and successfully completing her bachelor’s degree, while being a parent to her son. Then she received a full scholarship to get a master’s degree.

The educator wanted to figure out what had caused the roadblocks when she got pregnant. The young lady simply said, “They didn’t let me grow there. My friends and family pulled me down. I had to get away from them in order to grow.”

The young lady realized that no one in her environment could help, encourage, or support her, because she was moving into a world that they didn’t know about, and that frightened them. Logically, she knew she had a choice—but emotionally, she didn't know how to break away. As a result, she sabotaged her success with poor choices.

When you walk around with people who are losing, you normalize losing. That’s what environments can do. Many people choose to remain unseen because if they do, people can’t criticize, condemn, and ridicule them. That’s the reality of what will happen when you raise your expectations and pursue a greater dream.

Unfortunately, when you decide to change your life, everyone else doesn't decide to change theirs. When people don't want to see you change, they might undermine you and your goals or even try to sabotage them.

Some people are hard to encourage because they don't want to break up the routine that they have created around low expectations. Sadly, these people influence others who are impressionable and relegate them to a life of mediocrity. These are people who have not engaged fully in life. They’ve failed to honor the opportunities life presented to them.

When your own life operates at a consistent level of mediocrity, you can feel bitter toward people who are operating in excellence and walking in purpose. But when you start to move out of a state of complacency, you start demanding more for yourself, and you no longer resent those who have accomplished something.

You might have to move to environments that expose you to success, because your environment will determine the level of your thinking. This young lady made it out—but initially, she sabotaged herself because of her fear of success. The deeper part of the fear was the fear of losing those she loved.

Our role as mentors is to help people take control of their lives externally and internally, by helping them fight against the voices that would embed a sense of failure in them. Because they are looking to us, we need to be deliberate about what we are modeling for them.

Methods of Self-sabotage/Maintaining Mediocrity

1. You focus on too many options, which lends itself to divided focus and then inefficiency and wasted effort.

2. You quit when it gets hard.

3. You let other people monopolize your time. In other words, you don’t maintain healthy boundaries with others.

4. You run from the most important tasks to do trivial things. You find yourself “majoring” in minor issues.

5. You don’t take full responsibility.

6. You buy into the lie of shame.

7. You believe you have to be perfect in order to have value.

a. You don’t take a risk. In life, you will miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take.

8. You procrastinate.

9. You see a problem for every solution instead of a solution for every problem.

10. You trust the wrong people.

In what ways have you sabotaged your own success?

Many people fear success. I wrote about it in Bridge the Gaps – Chapter 29 – Fear of Success. But there’s one thing I didn’t mention that I would like to here. It’s the power of faith.

Regardless of what you think or believe, faith and religion is a very important part of black life and thought. One educator suggests that, if you took all the people who have been healed of mental distress or depression by the theories of reputable psychologists (Jung, Freud, Rogers, etc.), it would not equal a fraction of the number of people who have been healed of mental distress by faith.

Regardless of what you believe about faith, many people have been able to move through depression and sadness, outside of any biological or organic issue, through faith. Even if you are not religious, if it’s effective for the person you’re mentoring, you need to develop the skill set to point them in the right direction.

I started TheBridge330 Mentoring Program because I believe that the power of faith has the ability to address sociological and psychological issues. Faith is not demonstrated when you get what you hoped for. Faith is proven while you wait for what you hoped for to materialize.

This is worth repeating: God is giving you a lamp and not a flashlight, so you have just enough illumination to take the next step. As you become productive and break cycles, faith is going to help you to take steps even when you can’t fully see what will happen. Faith will bring about things you haven’t seen.

You will discover that, when you’re under pressure, poise and grace are more important than talent. Once you’ve mitigated the important risks and have done your due diligence, you need to exercise your faith.

Fear and faith cannot live together. Personally, when I encounter situations with constantly changing variables that could knock me off balance and cause me to lose focus, I try to focus on things that don’t change. Others have accused people for using faith as a crutch. But when used correctly, it’s a weapon to break through the glass ceiling of limiting beliefs and self-doubt.

The young lady in the story above was afraid to lose love. I don’t want to lose anyone’s love, but the most important love is the love of God. The only person you need to co-sign your purpose is the creator of that purpose: God. Personally, my faith anchors in my willingness to endure harsh treatment from people, knowing God’s opinion matters most.

Here are the Scriptural references that I use:

1. Jesus became like these people and died so that he could free them. They were like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:15, ERV)

2. To live in Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21, NIV)

3. Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me. (Psalm 27:10, NIV)

4. He will never leave nor forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

5. Whoever trusts the Lord is kept safe. (Proverbs 29:25, NIV)

6. You are a man of integrity who is not swayed by people’s opinions. (Matthew 22:16, NIV)

7. Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10, NIV)

8. Walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7, NIV)

9. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6, NIV)

10. People who always want more stir up conflict. But those who trust in the Lord will succeed. (Proverbs 28:25, NIRV)

11. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on Earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. (John 16:33, NIV)

12. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24, NIV )

13. Trust in the Lord at all times. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV)

14. Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! (Hebrews 12:1-3, MSG)

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