The Duplicity of Expectations

Two-faced head statue

I have seen a lot of discussion lately on the topic of expectations.  Opinions vary about their value.

Search Google for quotes about expectations.  For every quote declaring the need to set high expectations as a target for achievement, there is a companion quote warning that expectations should be kept low to avoid disappointment and failure.

Lolly Daskal, in her piece, “Expectations Mislead Us” said, “As leaders who lead from within, it’s important that we learn to let go of expectations and replace them with wonderment.”  OK – makes sense.

Peter Bregman, in his HBR blog, “Don’t Let Your Expectations Fool You”, shares his experience as one of his expectations clashed with reality.  His lesson learned: “This was a good reminder of how easy it is to mistake our expectation for reality, the past for the present, and our desires for fact. And how painful it can be when we do.”

As I read Bregman’s article, I thought of a similar experience from years ago.  I had been working in the Pacific Northwest on a short-term contract.  Memorial Day was near.  Being an Ohio native, I fondly reflected on my past memories of the highly acclaimed “unofficial start of summer” with the warmth of the sun and a crystal blue swimming pool being the image that came to mind.  With that thought, I made reservations to spend that Memorial Day weekend on the Oregon Coast.  Shorts, t-shirts, and swimming togs in tow, I traveled to the coast for my weekend retreat on the beach.  (Those of you familiar with the Pacific Northwest and the Oregon Coast are now smiling.  You know what I quickly learned.)  My expectation of Memorial Day being sunny and warm was far from reality when I arrived in Cannon Beach.  Reality was damp, rainy, and cold – for the entire weekend.  My expectations:  much, much different than reality.

High (realistic) expectations propel you forward.  High (unrealistic) expectations disappoint.

Expectations as “the carrot” become our dreams and our motivators. This is what I want tomorrow to look like.  So, the question becomes, how do I get there?

Chris Berdik, in his book Mind Over Mind:  The Surprising Power of Expectations, takes an in-depth look at expectations and their influence on us.  His research documents how changing one’s expectations actually changes reality. “Our brains can’t help but look forward.  We spend very little of our mental lives completely in the here and now.”

But expectations can also represent “the stick”.  If a person is void of flexibility and perspective, he/she can become overwhelmed by the inability to reach the dream as first imagined.  In that inflexibility, one becomes a victim of his/her expectations.

Berdik writes, “If we can unlock the power of expectations, then we can maximize their potential and avoid their pitfalls.”

Adaptability is the key to bridging the expectations gap.

So many times our own perception of what should be gets in the way of appreciating what is.  Alli Polin, in her piece “Mind the (Expectations) Gap, says “Truth is, not everything is better than you had imagined and certainly not everything is worse either… it’s different.”

We recently had a patio built in our side yard.  I had in my mind what this patio would look like prior to the work commencing.  To my surprise, the finished work in no way looked like my mental image.  In fact, upon reflection, the “new patio” is much nicer than what I had imagined.  It’s different, and I like it. 

We imagine our future. We strive to make it happen. We rejoice when it does or adapt when it doesn’t. We then reimagine.  Setting and achieving our expectations is a cyclical process.  Replace “lather – rinse – repeat” with “imagine – achieve or adapt – repeat”.

Dreams are rarely achieved by traveling a short, straight path.  Instead, the journey is a passage of curves and roadblocks and hills and valleys.  And along the way, we continually evaluate, learn, and adapt.

Setting high expectations is important for our future.  Reaching for the stars trumps settling for the status quo any day of the week.  But it is not a yes/no proposition.  Expectations should be sandwiched between one’s ability to be realistic and one’s ability to flex and adapt.   At times, the fork in the “expectations highway” may lead us away from our intended dream.  Accepting that turn of events brings an inner peace and provides space for more dreams and expectations. 

The bottom line:  Choose your expectations wisely.  Achieve or adapt.  Repeat.



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