We form expectations about all manner of things. Sometimes this is explicit, but often it’s not. Without being aware of our expectations, or testing their validity, we set ourselves up for disappointment.
The most recent example of this is the proposed timing for reopening schools and the broader economy. It’s all over the media, people are protesting in the streets, governments are preparing frameworks. It seems like it’s on the doorstep. Then we hear an announcement that the mere possibility of schools reopening has been bumped back another two weeks. We feel disappointed, mislead, frustrated, ill-equipped.
We likely didn’t even know that our expectations were building. It happens automatically and silently, based on snippets of data points and our desire to make them serve our purpose. When the verdict comes in, the inconsistency with the model of the world we built creates tension. This steals our attention. We then embark on a mission to explain how this happened, generally with the goal of confirming that we weren’t wrong to have held the expectation in the first place.
Another example to illustrate the effect of expectations is pain. When we go to the gym and have an intense workout, we expect to feel pain. In fact, we want to feel pain, as this lets us know we are pushing ourselves to create future gains. The next day, as we walk around sore, we confirm we did a good thing. Contrast this with waking up and experiencing a spontaneously stiff and sore neck. The actual sensation of pain is not all that different from our workout, but our interpretation is. We weren’t expecting this. We start thinking about what is wrong and projecting to how this will negatively impact the day ahead. The difference between these two cases is a matter of expectations.
The first step in fixing the problem of unmet expectations is being aware of how often they occur. When we find ourselves disappointed with an outcome, or experiencing anxiety about how something might turn out, this should serve as a signal that expectations are involved. Next, consider whether we are expecting things that are within our control. Generally, we aren’t, including the first example about reopening the economy. We need to challenge ourselves to only be concerned with those things that are within our control, or that we can reasonably influence, and accept the rest. Finally, once we’ve reconsidered our expectations within what we can control, we should use the data available from past experiences to consider how likely the outcome is that we expect. As in science, we should welcome the opportunity to be wrong. This is how we learn.
The world is an unpredictable place. The only expectation we should have is that almost nothing will turn out exactly as we expected. And that’s OK.