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The paradox of expectations

How to avoid disappointment and achieve greatness

Expectations shape our reality. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all affected. This makes them extremely impactful. However, what few people realize is that expectations are a complex phenomenon. Having them, can both have positive and negative outcomes.

Following the assumption of complexity, there’s typically two different views of expectations that you’ll hear about. Those who view them as bad, and those who view them as good. Here’s an example:

“Expectation is the mother of all frustration.” — Antonio Banderas

“High expectations are the key to everything”. — Sam Walton

Two very different views, don’t you agree? They seem like opposites. What’s the deal here? Is it really possible that expectations can be both good and bad? Let us first look at each of these statements, and then, give a solution to what seems to be a paradox.

The negative effects of expectations

People will tell you things like “if you don’t have any expectations, you can never be let down.” And sure, there’s some merit to this assumption.

When you hold expectations, you have a belief about how something is or how it will be. You give your trust to something or someone. If it fails to live up to your expectations — whether it be other people, an event, or even yourself — it’s going to hurt. You’ll get disappointed, angry and frustrated.

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope

The positive effects of expectations

Holding expectations can sometimes lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have a belief about a certain feature, in yourself or others, actions that are consistent with the initial belief can be evoked. This is especially true in social situations. If you expect someone to have a certain personality, then you might evoke behaviors in that person that’s consistent with your belief.

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.” — Stephen R. Covey

Navigating expectations

As we have seen, there’s both positive and negative sides to expectations. Following are some tips on how to navigate your expectations:

  • Have high expectations towards others. Expect them to be as good as possible. However, do not be naïve about it. Their true character will eventually shine through, and when it do, make a choice of what to do next.
  • Don’t expect others to treat you like you’re treating them. Anything external, are outside your control. And thus, you shouldn’t expect to control it either.
  • Have high expectations toward yourself, but be smart about it. Have at least one foot inside reality. In addition, the principle of not holding expectations toward something you cannot control, applies here as well.
  • Don’t avoid having expectations all together. Without proper ones, your standards will be low, and you might lack the drive to reach your goals. You have to expect to be competent.

It’s not easy to be completely free of expectations whether you want to have them or not. A lot of them are in fact operating in our unconscious mind. However, if you should come to be let down—for whatever reason—there are tactics that you can use to bounce back.

Learned optimism is a tool of navigating disappointment. This tactic implies that you should generally be optimistic about things (e.g., hight expectations). If disappointment or failure do come your way, simply explain why it occurred in a rational manner. Best case scenario; the thing were outside you’re control, so you couldn’t have done anything about it. If in fact you could have avoided it, then there’s still an upside to it. You learned something, and you get to improve.

Wrapping up

The paradox of expectation is solvable. The outcome we get is a matter of navigating the things we can and cannot control. Having high expectations to things we can control is beneficial. It’s the things that are outside our control we should be aware of.

It can sometimes be hard to navigate the landscape of expectations. The important thing is that we try to manage them wisely. It’s a thin line to walk, and only by exerting psychological agility can we achieve the optimal outcome.

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