Our Expectations: Magnets for Success or Weights that Hold Us Back
Updated: Aug 1
“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.” – Charles Kettering
Our expectations are the stories we tell ourselves about how things will go in our life.
Different than mere wishing or wanting, the expectations we have for ourselves are powerful. More powerful than magic, even.
Expectations vs. magical thinking
First off: simply expecting things to happen, will not make them happen.
Renowned child psychologist, Jean Piaget, found that developmentally, young children cannot often differentiate between the objective, real world and the often fanciful one in their minds. He called it ‘magical thinking’ when children expect all sorts of things to happen – rational or not.
While Piaget’s research showed that children outgrow magical thinking at around age 7, it does appear that looking around these days, mind-over-matter is an increasingly grown-up hobby as well.
Wishful thinking may be comfortable, but it doesn’t get the job done.
Despite how tremendously inviting it may be to hang our hopes on a particular outcome - like expecting a pandemic to magically disappear, for example – it’s still necessary to draw the line between the realistic and the outright delusional.
“Hope don’t get the job done.” – Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Expectations vs. hopes and dreams
We all want good things to happen.
But tying our happiness to a hope of something happening or the desire to do well, is considerably different than tying it to true expectations of success.
High aspirations are helpful but it is the expectation of achievement, not the hope, that makes the difference. It's the real, deep belief in the possibility or even probability, of being successful at whatever we are trying to achieve.
Research has shown how expectations and aspirations were considerably different when it comes to student success. Often, students with low expectations for academic achievement - even with high hopes - performed poorly when compared to students with high expectations.
Other studies have shown that with students, increasing hopes or aspirations doesn’t actually lead to accomplishment. The Education Endowment Foundation (2018) found that attempts at raising hopes of student educational success turned out to have no real positive impact.
The divide between wanting something, and profoundly believing you can achieve it - is wide.
Expectation as a self-fulfilling prophesy
Expectations of parents, of teachers, of ourselves; it’s the expectation that sets the bar. The expectation is where we aim. It sets the tone.
“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to 'jump at the sun. ' We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Expectations set the foundation for what’s attainable – for both ourselves and for others. They can serve as a beacon to pull us forward or as a weight to hold us back.
Dozens of studies have shown that the expectations we have for ourselves, and that others have for us, are powerful and can influence actual performance. Overall, achievement is generally improved by higher expectations, and performance undermined by low expectations of success.
High expectations can also include the motivation and willingness to act on behalf of our goals. Low expectations come with just the opposite.
“I think America’s greatest wound is low expectations. We have different expectations for different people depending on where they’re from, what they look like, who their parents (are), what community they’re in.” - Wes Moore
The expectations others have for us can become our own
The expectations that we have for ourselves find their foundation in those others had for us; of our parents, teachers, even society’s biases and stereotypes.
Psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s research on the power that the positive expectations of others can have, is also referred to as the Pygmalion effect. The opposite is the Golem effect: whether placed upon us or by us, low expectations set a low bar and negatively impact our performance and potential.
Whether high or low, when the expectations of others are internalized and become our own, they set the tone for our actions or inaction that follow.
Expectations bring reinforcements
The idea, the want, even the expectation is one thing. Our behavior either moves us toward the reality of that expected outcome or not.
Our behavior will tend to support the expectations we have for ourselves. With high expectations, we are more willing to expend effort, work hard and create reasons to believe the expectation can be fulfilled.
Expectations tend to come with choices and planning and action. Expectations have feet on the ground. Wishing and wanting don’t come with reinforcements.
Difficult and unattainable are totally different things
Expectations are not only about the end result. They are just as much about the process.
In a world of short attention-spans and instant gratification, the expectations we have and the assumptions we make about what it truly takes to get from here to there, can make a big difference - including how quickly, easily or directly things will happen in life.
Expectations of everything going according to plan are unrealistic and will at some point lead to disappointment. Broadening the picture and exercising flexibility muscles can help.
“The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.” – Henry David Thoreau
Expectation is like a magnet. Obstacles, pauses and challenges do not stop the inevitable pull and progress; despite what’s in front of us, what we expect for our life is still possible, even probable.
That’s not what it’s supposed to look like
The narrower and more specific our expectations, the picture we have in our head becomes the standard to which reality must live up. Uh, have you met reality?
Our expectations become the gauge by which we judge our life and our happiness.
Depending on the goal, both high and low expectations can serve us.
High expectations for success. Low expectations for contentment.
When we want to encourage ourselves or others to improve, grow or achieve, high expectations are essential. But if contentment and satisfaction are the goal, scientists have found that the key to happiness may be keeping expectations low.
“The secret to happiness is low expectations.” - Barry Schwartz
Expectations and happiness
Neuroscientist Robb Rutledge and team of the University College London (2014), found that our level of happiness is not dependent on how our life is developing in general but rather, whether life is exceeding our expectations.
Basically, if our expectations are lower, the odds are, circumstances will beat those predictions and increase happiness levels in turn. Happiness is relative and determined in large part by what we expect to happen.
The world often does not cooperate with our expectations, leaving disappointment in its wake. By dialing down what we require to make us happy, everything that exceeds that is gravy.
In fact, research has also uncovered that positive expectations unto themselves, sparked happiness – outside of any outcome at all. In this case, the expectations of something good happening is enough – unaffected by real life's uncertainties.
Disappointment squashes contentment. There is value and power in managing expectations that can either encourage our own happiness or dissatisfaction with life.
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus." – Stephen Hawking
It was not the result itself that drives happiness levels but rather how that result compares to what we expect to happen. The key is in managing the space between where we are now and what we expect to happen.
It’s all relative. A repair bill for $500 doesn’t sound like it could make anyone happy – unless, the expected bill was a cool grand. Coming in at half the expense can actually spark joy. On the other hand, even objectively positive outcomes can lead to misery if initial expectations are too high.
Even capturing a star can be unfulfilling and disappointing, if our entire heart was set solely on the moon. If the actual experience doesn’t match the high expectations, there’s no place to go but down.
Expectations vs. standards
Expectations are about how we believe things will happen moving forward. Expectations are about potential and intention.
A standard is different. Knowing the difference between the two is especially helpful when it comes to relating to other human beings.
Standards represent a level of quality.
Our standards denote a line whereby anything on one side is unacceptable. It is a line below or over, we will not cross - whether it’s about the quality of the products we buy or how we’re treated by others.
When it comes to others, having standards, and creating and upholding boundaries, are the key to healthy relationships. Our standards, like the high expectations we set for ourselves, empower our responsibility and ownership for what happens to us in life.
We have control over what we will accept and will not accept.
Expectations and other people
Expectations for ourselves, reasonable or not, are one thing. It’s when our expectations involve other human beings where things can go sideways.
Expecting something to happen, requires buy-in and participation from all parties concerned. That’s why it’s rational to have expectations of ourselves, and less so when expecting others to behave the way we want them too.
In relating with others, people expect all kinds of things. We expect people to treat us a certain way, we expect people to change, we expect people to not change. This is only exacerbated further when our expectations of others often go uncommunicated.
We compare and judge our life and the people in it, to pictures and expectations we have in our head.
The issue may not be the person failing to live up to our expectations, but rather the expectations themselves.
“Expectations are premeditated resentments.” – Big Book, Alcoholic Anonymous
Long used as a tool in recovery programs, giving up expectations of others is a tool for one’s own well-being. If we can give up the need to control, to be right, and have it our way, we release ourselves from disappointment.
Recovering from something or not, releasing the expectations we have of others is similar to forgiveness and acceptance - it's a gift we give ourselves.
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