In a February 2018 article in Psychology Today the author guides us through some of the studies and research on expectations. One theme that emerges is there are realistic expectations and premeditated resentments. Let’s briefly unpack that so you know what that means, if you didn’t click over to the article and read it. Expectations are what you think will happen. You have some coffee, you perk up. You have a day off, you’ll do something fun. You go shopping, you’ll get a new shirt. Resentment comes when our expectations, our unwritten rules, are not fulfilled. One example in the article was someone who served as an amateur therapist for all their friends for years, and then when she needed a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear, she didn’t get them. You’re probably resentful on her behalf just reading that! There’s an invisible tally sheet, or so we all think, keeping score and deciding what we deserve.
The phrase “premeditated resentments” is a fun one. You’ve probably heard the term premeditated a lot in crime dramas. It means thought out before hand. Like premeditated murder – it wasn’t a crime of passion, it was planned out. In crime dramas that makes it somehow worse. It’s cold and calculated, not out of passion. Premeditated resentment means you plan on getting upset about your expectations not being fulfilled. I have a day off next week and I’m already upset that the weather looks like we’re not going to be able to go to the water park that day!
Setting Low Expectations
The Psychology Today article is really about learning to live a happy life by setting low expectations. This is apparently an idea in anonymous groups, like alcoholics anonymous. I can see the logic. Expect less and be delighted when something decent happens. I was basically raised with this philosophy – some sort of odd 12 step parenting technique? Hello, my name is Josh and I’m your son. Hi Josh! You can imagine how your life would be more pleasant if you didn’t set yourself up for disappointment, and found joy even when things happen that aren’t a big deal.
But let’s look at the other side of this. What if you accept that the only expectations you should have are realistic ones, ones based on prior experience. The effect of this would be that your expectations will probably go down in terms of expected results. Coffee doesn’t always pep you up. Sometimes you go shopping and you don’t find a shirt. Maybe we should lower our expectations? Maybe I’ll find a shirt. Maybe I’ll feel more alert. That way I won’t be disappointed when things don’t go the way I want them to.
When you were a kid you probably had fanciful ideas of what you’d do with your life. As a teen and in your early 20s you’d travel the world, make a huge impact, be recognized as you walked into a room and asked to speak in front of crowds. In all likelihood, your experience didn’t meet your aspirations. Hopefully this didn’t produce too much resentment on your part, but it almost certainly resulted in you adjusting your expectations. Maybe you hoped to be respected in your company, maybe have some important position, and have enough time off and money to go to fun places a couple of times a year. Things sometimes get tough. Salaries stagnate or go down, and employers want younger, less expensive people. Maybe your hopes change to keeping your job, being able to pay your bills, maybe having an hour or two of fun with your family a night, and some camping trips and visits to family in other states via a road trip.
This is life, and this is reality. Adjusting your expectations is necessary to keep you from being crushed when you don’t become an astronaut, pro soccer player or YouTube star. There’s a benefit to appreciating the little things in life, and not needing the ego boosts and constant pleasures life doesn’t seem to deliver with regularity. But consider if your expectations are a gauge or meter. What if they are not properly calibrated?
When people are exposed to stressful situations with regularity their perspective on life is altered. They are on edge. They expect bad things to happen all the time. They are living with adrenaline, with fight or flight being a constant presence. If people had gauges for their emotional state and stress, where maybe the default state of that gauge would be at a 3 out of 10 for most people, for people frequently exposed to stressful situations their gauge may be at a 6. They’re just short of the boiling point all the time. Everything will throw them into a panic.
If there was another of these mythical gauges in us for expectations, constantly learning to turn your expectations down might make our gauges go from a default state of 5 to a 3 or a 1. If you are always learning to tone down your expectations so you don’t have premeditated resentments, you are lowering your expectations until you expect just about nothing. While lowered expectations might be good to prevent resentment, they also encourage us to settle, and to reach less.
You won’t get to great success by settling. That’s not the direction to go in to get to the top. You won’t get there on your own, and no one will pluck you from quiet obscurity to place you on a pedestal. It’s very rare that quiet, obscure diligence results in someone noticing and rewarding you. You need to reach and try. We love stories like this – it’s the foundation for the reality shows like America’s Got Talent. You didn’t progress through the system, but you have the ability, and you’re willing to subject yourself to failure for the possibility of success. The odds of winning the lottery are so bad it’s joked they’re a tax on people bad at math, and yet one marketing slogan lotteries have used is – you can’t win it if you don’t play.
And success isn’t just from one in a million tries. Regularly reaching beyond your reasonable expectations can have positive results, and repeatedly trying trains you to do a better job of reaching.
What are our goals?
Maybe the issue isn’t with adjusting our expectations all the time, but changing the goals we are setting that lead to potential disappointment and resentment. Edison’s ability to invent is at least partially attributed to his willingness to try every possible option to find just the right one. He tried 6,000 different substances for the filament of a light bulb before finding the right one. Other inventors, like the Wright brothers, have similar histories of trying many, many times before succeeding. But it isn’t just a willingness to jump back up and not give up. They learned as they failed, and so failure wasn’t an all or nothing thing.
There’s a lot to learn from failure. And if you go into something with the expectation that you’ll fail, and adjust your expectations, it can help. I’ve tried to do this with teaching my kids to tie their shoes. I’ve told them you have to fail 100 times before you’ll succeed, and when they fail to tie their shoes correctly I praise them excitedly. With these adjusted expectations they didn’t fail to learn to tie their shoes – they succeeded in failing the first time. Only 99 more failures to go. I’d like to think this helps them, I’m not certain, but what I’m trying to instill in them is while it’s nice if they can do something perfect the first try, what’s more important is they can do it. If you’re the best hitter on the baseball team you’re still the best whether it came naturally to you or not. How you got there is an interesting story, but it won’t alter the success of your team.
Baseball is a good subject to consider when discussion expectations. I’ve never been into sports, and am now learning most of what little I know about baseball because my young son is playing baseball, so please excuse me if what I say doesn’t grasp everything about baseball it should. The reason I feel it’s a good subject for a discussion on expectations is the tremendous use of statistics in baseball, and the importance of limited success.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Moneyball, or read the book, or even just watched a baseball game or talked with serious fans, you’ll hear so many statistics being thrown around you’d think you’re hanging out with people running a major financial system. Everything is recorded and measured. One of the simplest statistics recorded is the batting average. How often does a swing of the bat result in something other than a strike? How often does the player earn one or more bases? In professional baseball a very good player will have an average somewhere in the 300s, which is a decimal, suggesting about 1/3rd of the time they earn a base. Let that sink in for a second. A very good player fails 2/3rds of the time. They go nowhere. They lose. There are four big things I want to take from this.
First, If you don’t know what your goals are, and don’t set some metrics to measure, you don’t have any way of measuring your success. You absolutely need to do this. There’s no need to guess. Knowing your goals and measuring them is the first step in being able to tell if you’re succeeding. We’re getting to baseball like statistics gathering with trackers for screen time, sleep, exercise and diet. Learning programs are gamefied. Just about everything is measured. Leverage that data on yourself.
Second, we clearly need to adjust our expectations of success. If we knew we’d fail 2/3rds of the time, our expectations would be seriously adjusted. You wouldn’t have a fear of performing, of trying, of taking risks, or stepping up to the plate. This is the scenario. You succeed one in three times. You will fail. And that’s ok. It’s actually more than ok. If you fail a mere 66% of the time you’re one of the best in the world at what you do. And that’s if you play baseball. Remember, Edison’s lightbulb filament took 6,000 tries!
Fail early, fail often
Third, you don’t succeed 1/3rd of the time without failing 2/3rds of the time. The best players in the world succeed after they have failed. That’s the way it works. If you get on base, you don’t swing anymore. You don’t fail after you succeed. Just like when you lose something, you look for it and find it – the last place you looked is where something was. You don’t look after you found it. We need to get comfortable with failure. We need to relish it. Learn from it. Count it off and expect it to happen again. Only after failure will there be success.
Don’t judge prematurely
Fourth, statistics aren’t made from one time up at bat. They’re not even made from one game. They are at least from one season, but can also be lifetime. That means you need to be ready, eager, prepared to fail and fail and fail and fail. Great leaders need to not just tolerate, but welcome failure. It is inevitable, and it’s also a learning experience. Being deflated by it is defying reality, and impeding your inevitable success. You succeed after failure. You must go through failure first.
Great leaders don’t judge someone on their progress after one swing or one at bat – that would be ridiculous. You mustn’t judge yourself that way either, and be very wary of being under the leadership of someone so resistance to success. You read that correctly – success. If they aren’t willing to have you fail repeatedly, they don’t want success. No one in their right mind expects a home run at every swing of a bat. No one has ever had a success ratio like that. It’s beyond unrealistic expectations, it’s fanciful dreaming.
Success is built on a foundation of failure, of disappointment and frustration. But those experiences need to be respected and learned from. They need to be expected and welcomed. If you’re the world’s greatest baseball player failing 66% of the time is the dramatic music building up to a deafening crescendo before you crack the bat against the ball and send it beyond the stands and into the parking lot. You should be smiling while you fail. You don’t succeed without it, and exciting times are coming.
You’re a failure, and I’m very excited for you.
If you’d like me to speak on this subject to your organization, send me a note.