October 2022

Making and Breaking Expectations teaser image

Making and Breaking Expectations

Abigail Graves 

I have an unhealthy fear of disappointing others. From high school basketball coaches to close family members to college professors to my current bosses, I push myself to the limit for fear of receiving a reprimanding look or a scolding word. Even as I lack the self-motivation to take care of my physical and mental and spiritual health, I excel where others’ expectations are imposed on me.

If you were to speak to the counselor that I saw throughout high school (assuming client-patient confidentiality was waived), you might receive a variety of answers as to why I am the way I am. However, everything my counselor might tell you would be besides the most important point. Regardless of why I feel the need to strain myself beyond reasonable expectations for the approval of my family and mentors, the vital thing I have needed to learn is how to fight those worries and set boundaries.

…and I am still figuring that part out.

I have been with my company for nearly two years now, half a year of interning and a year and a half of working full-time. I have recently been given a water treatment project in a major metropolitan area to manage, and while I still have a lot to learn about designing water and wastewater treatment systems, I wanted to do my best with as little assistance as possible. With such an important task given to such a young engineer, I knew it was imperative to my career development that this project go well. Afterall, if I botched this rare opportunity to show that I am capable of handling far more than is expected of an engineer my age, when would be the next time my boss would trust me with another leadership position on a project? How long would it take to climb the ladder again? How quickly could I repair my boss’s damaged confidence in me? To me, it was evident that this was not a task I could fail. This was not a ball I could drop. This was not a boss I could disappoint.

Despite my best efforts to manage my team and adapt to the issues that get thrown my way, the project could be going better. Somedays it feels like I am doing everybody’s jobs. It seems that I am constantly fixing design mistakes made by my engineers and pointing out drawing errors made by my 3D modeling people and wrestling to keep everybody generally on-task all while attempting to find the time to do my own parts of the project. I don’t know how to better explain tasks nor how to motivate my team members to put forth higher-quality work. I work and I explain and I fix and I ask and I demand, but it still feels like the project has not progressed in weeks.

I’m tired. And I feel like telling my boss that I’m struggling is just proof that I can’t cut it. However, what I have been realizing is that it is okay to be put in a challenging situation that stretches my limitations, and it is commendable to put forth significant effort despite the possibility of failure – just as it is a good and responsible endeavor to ask for advice and help as it is needed. This project is not just about me and my success, but the success of my team members and the delivery of a high-quality design to the client. If my limits are my lack of real authority and design experience, then there is little I can do to remedy those issues at the present. No amount of effort is going to create something from nothing.

I know that I am putting forth the best work I can and that I am managing this project to the best of my abilities. If that is not enough to bring the project up to my expectations, then it is time for me to ask for help or advice from somebody with more authority or experience – somebody who can make up for my limitations. And that’s okay.

My fear of disappointing my bosses and professors can make me believe that I need to do everything perfectly all the time with no help or oversight, but that is simply not feasible. As I grow and learn, I will require less assistance and guidance, but for now, I am simply doing my best. Therefore, as I work through my worry about my mentors’ perceptions of me, I can at least be proud of myself for my own effort and diligence even in the daunting face of the maturity and growth that await me in my education and career.

About the Author

image of author Abigail Graves

Abigail Graves

Originally from small beer-town Shiner, TX, Abigail is currently a master’s student in Chemical Engineering with an emphasis in water resources. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M, yet chemistry is still her least favorite science. She works fulltime at an engineering consulting firm specializing in wastewater treatment plant design. She is married, has five dogs and loves anything nerdy, but will break some ankles on the basketball court if needed.

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