Let’s start with Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “deserve”:
: to be worthy of : merit
- deserves another chance
: to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward or requital
- … have become recognized as they deserve. —T. S. Eliot
- a worse punishment than he deserved
Its synonyms include words like “merit, earn, warrant, rate, justify, be worthy of, be entitled to, have a right to, be qualified for”.
“the book deserves our greatest praise”
“well earned, merited, warranted, justified, justifiable;
rightful, due, right, just, fair, fitting, appropriate, suitable, proper, apt”
It occurs to me that what we deserve falls into the same dilemma as discussions about what we want.
I always ask “What do you want?” when addressing a new or potential coaching client. When pressed to develop the answer, I believe it’s the most difficult one to generate. It can sometimes take weeks or even months to get clear about this. Why?
It depends on where the answer is coming from. Most initial responses I hear come from the K/J. I want money. I want a Ferrari. I want to shoot par in golf. I want respect at my job. I want nice clothes.
Why do I say these come from the K/J? Because they are comparisons of where the responder is today and where he’s been taught he should be tomorrow. For the most part, these responses are predictable, measurable, and judgmental (with the current state of affairs not measuring up).
There are usually a bunch of learned, knee-jerk responses in this type of response. They come from our history… sometimes they can even tie in to what our parents convinced us we wanted.
The want that comes from the L/R, on the other hand, lacks all the comparisons and judgment. That want is not one that measures itself against the rest of the world, but simply states an aspiration for helping one choose to be happy. It can seem deeply meaningful (“I want world peace.”) and it can seem absolutely silly (“I want to hear a Christmas carol in August”). Closeness and tenderness fall into this category unless they’re associated with some power over another. “I want to make love.” vs. “I want to take you.”
As with the dichotomy of “wanting”, the function of “deserving” can fall into either category, depending on where the audit trail for the deserved outcome drills down to.
If I believe I deserve to win and I want to explain why, I could respond “because I worked hard and hard work deserves reward.” Can you hear me quote my learned history there? While the idea that “hard work deserves reward” may be a nice cliché, and it’s a lesson many children are taught, it’s not necessarily accurate. History is full of examples where people work their fingers to the bone and are simply not rewarded.
Although when I do work hard and my aspirations are met, it can condition me to the idea that this works 100% of the time. A fallacy, I’ve learned.
So what can we deserve?
A caution at putting expectations on dogmatic trainings from our youth. “Fair” is one synonym mentioned in the dictionary excerpt above. “Fair” is an expectation of our upbringing—directly from our K/J, learned and embedded, and not necessarily accurate. Same with what we deserve—an expectation from our K/J, sometimes bypassing evidence to the contrary (statistics, for example) and opening us up for increased levels of frustration (unmet expectations).
I suppose in contract law we can deserve what an agreement tells us we get for some cost (effort, money, time invested, etc.). I paid Amazon for the widget. I deserve the widget at my door when they say it will be there.
In general day-to-day living, I suspect we can deserve only what is. “It is what it is.” (My wife hates when I drop that one into a conversation!) I can affect an outcome by any number of exercises, hard work, better data, luck, clearer reasoning, improved observation, self-evaluation, different decisions, etc. But to say I deserve it just because I worked hard can be an expectation without all parameters considered… and it can cause frustration.
When I set an aspiration and work hard to achieve it and it doesn’t materialize, I gain little to no satisfaction from convincing myself I deserved it. Rather, looking at why I might not have deserved it—where I was blind to some parameter—is much more productive than licking my wounds and getting others to believe I deserved it as well.