I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Low expectations are the key to happiness.”
We always have a laugh when she says it, and I agree—to a point—with her perspective. Over time, I have learned the hard way to keep my expectations low around things I don’t control. Take the Washington Nationals, for instance. As long as the Lerners (the owners) and Mike Rizzo (the General Manager) . . .
- fire and hire managers without regard for their records or experience (see: Baker, Dusty and Martinez, Davey);
- refuse to spend money to acquire help in the bullpen when the team obviously has a need (see: bullpen meltdown in the heat of a pennant race vs. lowly Marlins on Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22 and aforementioned Davey Martinez); and
- expect some of the best players in baseball (see: Rendon, Anthony) to give them a hometown discount instead of offering what they are worth on the open market . . .
I find I enjoy the experience of Nationals baseball a great deal more when I don’t “expect” a world championship or for some of my favorite players to get long-term deals.
But this isn’t a post about baseball*.
To look at the opposite of low expectations, a recent Friday Forward column by the self-described “serial entrepreneur” Robert Glazer argues for the importance of having high expectations for yourself, your family, and your teams at work. Again, I find myself agreeing—up to a point—with his perspective. He writes, “The notion that people are likely to rise or fall to the level of our expectations—and that our subtle positive or negative reinforcements can significantly impact outcomes—is something that both leaders and parents should seriously consider.” So far, so good. But too many times leaders and parents put high expectations on their teams or on their children and hold it over them, without offering assistance to get over the bar. For a classic case, read almost any book by the late Pat Conroy. I have seen Glazer’s perspective succeed in my life—where teachers, supervisors, and mentors both conveyed and supported high expectations of me—and I’ve also seen instances where high expectations by a supervisor, without corresponding positive reinforcement, can absolutely demoralize a team.
Expectations are funny things. Perhaps one of the major challenges in this area is the way we tie our happiness to the outcomes of those expectations. John Johnson, a professor at Penn State University, has written a telling piece on The Psychology of Expectations. He notes that, “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments” and then explains how this plays out time and again in our lives.
Johnson works through the “magical thinking” of expecting something good to happen just because we wish for it. While we should outgrow this mindset by age 7, too many adults live their lives under this fallacy. Johnson also explores how many of us pin happiness on fulfilled expectations. The problem of expectation, he notes, “occurs when we expect something to happen without good reasons for that expectation.” This is exacerbated when our expectations involve other people.
Oh my, have I ever seen that problem in action!
First, the admissions. I have tied happiness to expectations in the past. No surprise here, it often doesn’t work out (e.g., the first round of the 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017 National League playoffs.) Also, I sometimes (perhaps regularly?) assume someone will do something because I think they should act a certain way. I may never communicate that expectation, but it is there in my head, so it is obvious . . . right? An example which many may find instructive is when we reach out to someone via email or text expecting a reasonably quick response simply because we usually respond quickly to email and texts. When the other person doesn’t respond on our preferred timetable (or at all), then our expectations haven’t been met. In response we become resentful. Or worry. Or take some other non-productive approach that takes up space in our head when we should be focused on other things.
Of course the opposite is true as well. I know that there are those who have expectations as to how I will act or respond, without conveying those expectations to me. Or worse, as Johnson notes, “it is unrealistic to think that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to.”
Just because you told me how you want me to act doesn’t mean that I’m going to take your perspective. Each of us has our own desires, goals, values, and worldviews.
Johnson writes about the huge difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations.
“Believing that an unverbalized expectation will bring you what you want is magical thinking and is unrealistic. Expecting that doing what in the past has reliably brought about a result you want is realistic. Expecting others to do what is in your interest, but not their interest, is unrealistic. Expecting others to do what is in both of your interests can be realistic.”
We can—and, indeed, should—have expectations. However, Johnson suggests that if we find things to be grateful about, even when our expectations are not met, we will experience “serenity rather than resentment.”
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped. —Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969″
When used effectively, expectations can challenge us and improve the way we work with our families and teams. Just don’t tie expectations to being happy.
Perhaps a better mantra moving forward would be “No expectation should be your key to happiness.” Find your happiness elsewhere.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*Sorry. I just got carried away, as we’re in the final week of the regular season with eight games to go and the Nationals are tied with Milwaukee for the two wild card slots, with the Cubs four games behind. It is nail biting time. The Nats will probably get in the wild card game, but I don’t have any expectations that they’ll end up with the better record and get to play at home.