Nov 132020

We alone determine our own expectations. They often seem harmless, a simple and mostly inconsequential guess at the future, most often a short-term future. They are not harmless.

Expectations are incredibly important, more crucial than anyone talks about. They matter, not only in small personal ways but also in organization defining, championship winning, even life-and-death ways.

Imagine you are going to see a movie tonight. You have seen the teaser previews and it looks pretty good. You text your friend that “we should see ‘Last Train to Brooklyn’ tonight – I think it looks decent” and she agrees to go. During the day, you mention your plans to three friends and each one raves about the film. Your expectations rise from ‘maybe it will be decent’ before going to lunch to ‘this is going to be amazing‘ as the sun drops below the horizon.

Four hours later, you walk out of the theater disappointed. It wasn’t a bad film, but your expectations for near perfection were far greater than the director and the script writers managed to render at the cineplex. How much more satisfied would you have been if you had not mentioned the film to your friends during the day, and changed your expectations based on their comments?

Off-target expectations happen constantly in daily lives. Imagine the difference between a golfer who expects to shoot one of the best rounds of his life today, versus a golfer who wants to go out to be in the sunshine, to drink a couple of beers, and to hopefully break a 100. Imagine the casual basketball player who heads down to the gym expecting to be the star of the show tonight — even though he rarely is — versus the guy who plans to simply hustle, play good defense, and enjoy seeing his friends. Imagine the person who thinks traffic will be quick and light tonight, or imagine the person that goes to the restaurant expecting five-star service and the most incredible streak she has ever tasted. Sky high expectations nuke your perception of your experiences.

Expectations matter in bigger contexts too.

Imagine purchasing a stock based on a tip you received on the golf course last week. Your golf buddy tells you ABXX’s business is really starting to hit on all cylinders and it should double over the next three to five years. You do a bit of research, the CFRA report validates the story, you ultimately pull the trigger on 1,000 shares, and start watching the news about ABXX.

Just one month later, a talking head on CNBC espouses that ABXX should crush earnings next quarter and might pop 50%. A few weeks later, three Wall Street analysts increase their projections and buy recommendations. Your expectations skyrocket, but the subsequent earnings report comes in at the middle of the company’s previous guidance with no upside surprise. The stock price, which had run up into the print, loses ground overnight. In disgust, you sell your shares almost at the same price you bought them at. You then are annoyed three years later when you notice that ABXX shares have doubled since the day you had originally bought them.

Imagine you are the CEO of a thriving software company. If you and your young finance planners set expectations of 15% revenue growth for the next three years, and the company achieves 22% per year, you become a hero, the employees are happy, and investors smile too. But what if you had set those goals and expectations for 35% annual growth, not based on logic but rather just wanting to set stretch goals? Would anyone be happy, or would people be stressed? Would turnover be higher or lower? Would investors feel deceived? Would the board think about replacing you with a new CEO?

Imagine you are Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry is the perennial king of setting huge expectations. He invariably shoots for the SuperBowl, boldly declaring his true goal to every sports reporter during the summer. The team often starts out well. By the time the Boys are 4-0, everyone is talking about the idea that this year is the year. And then, one loss happens to the Eagles, and the team tightens up, the smiles and laughs become rare. A few more losses and by the end of the season, expectations are a big reason that the Cowboys desperately need a win, and a little help from the Giants, just to squeak into the Wild Card round.

What if Mr. Jones, just one time, built a high-caliber team capable of reaching the SuperBowl, but told everyone that we will focus on giving 100% effort, teamwork, and winning one game at a time this year?

Don’t limit yourself!

It is important to understand that expectations cut both ways. Many people suffer the consequences of limiting expectations. A person who does not expect to get the job, doesn’t often get it. A person who doesn’t expect to get promoted usually doesn’t get promoted. A person who doesn’t expect to find the right girl does not look for her. A person who doesn’t expect to hit the winning shot, misses badly, or more likely, passes the ball to a teammate. So, while it often pays to set expectations a bit conservatively and to not expect perfection, it is important to not set them in a way that limits your destiny.

In the biggest of contexts, expectations often determine who lives and who dies. Doctors and nurses see this every day at the hospital’s ICU. The person who expects to live, the person who expects to recover, is far more likely to make it than the person who expects that this is, indeed, the end. In the same way, people who expect to stay spry, fun, energetic, enthusiastic, and young-at-heart live fuller lives than those who expect to slow down in retirement. Expectations define the envelope of your life.

The choice is yours.

The good news is that you have the power to choose your expectations. Wise expectations set up a positive domino effect that builds momentum. If you become an independent thinker who is not heavily influenced by the opinions of others:

  1. You set and control your own expectations.
  2. Expectations will then fuel your perceptions and decisions.
  3. Your perceptions will absolutely impact your gratitude.
  4. Gratitude is the crucial key to day in and day out happiness, and
  5. Daily happiness is the secret catalyst which fuels greater success.

If you missed them in the past, here are my articles regarding the crucial nature of gratitude and the role daily happiness plays with continued success. If you only have a few more minutes, read this one and watch this one TED video.

There is wisdom in being careful about your expectations, setting them mindfully, and avoiding unrealistic hype. Understanding yourself and striving to beat your own bests by just a bit is far healthier for your psyche than comparing your performance to that of others. Win one game at a time, while deciding what “score” is a winning score. If you become a master at setting accurate, mindful, sky’s-the-limit expectations, you will become more optimistic, more positive, more forgiving, happier, a better decision-maker, and ultimately a more grateful and successful human.

I.M. Optimisman