Expectations shape our lives.
Expectations are the stories that we tell ourselves when we wake up in the morning and begin walking through our days and nights. They can either help provide the motivation for us to get out of bed or make us want to pull the covers back over our heads.
Expectations are the stories into which we fit our actions as we move along our journeys by ourselves and with others to our own projected destinations. Not only do we make up these stories about ourselves, but we also make up stories about the world we live in and about the other people in our lives.
They are built up by our anticipation of the desired outcomes for any adventure we undertake as well as the fears that we may not get what we want.
Expectations can help us build the WHY of our walks as well as provide the impetus for us to go do something. They can also be used to build up the WHY NOT of our walks — the obstacles we have to overcome before we can go do something.
They are all tied firmly to our needs, desires, values and beliefs. We use them to make a mental picture of how we think things “should” be and sometimes they can blind us to how things really are.
EXPECTATIONS AS ANNOTATED ROAD MAPS
It occurred to me that expectations are very much like the animist Australian Aboriginal songlines – Dreamtime maps in their heads — that tell the indigenes where they are in the world and the opportunities and dangers they are likely to encounter there.
These ancient peoples use their songlines to help them get to where they want to go in their harsh and beautiful world.
Like those Aboriginal songlines, our expectations are built up from all the past events and experiences that we have lived through. Stories that other people tell about their own experiences add to our store of expectations as well.
It’s like every one of us has our very own catalog of (often unexamined) deeply held beliefs that are either handed over to us or that we have constructed all on our own over time.
Some of our expectations are “realistic” and are based on historic (it-worked-the-last-time) or traditional (this-is-how-we-always-do-it) models and mindsets. These kinds of expectations usually result in your seeing what you and the whole rest of your world believe.
They can also result in your not seeing what you don’t believe. It is a given, apparently. If you cannot dream that a thing is even possible, then it probably will NOT be possible…for you.
Until British athlete Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile barrier in 1954, everybody thought it was impossible. After all, running a mile (1,609.344 meters for all you metric folks) in four minutes translates to a speed of 15 miles (24.14 km) per hour.
Nobody thought it could be done. Nobody did it.
After Bannister, more than 1,400 male athletes have completed the run in under 4 minutes. Several of them broke the record just months after his record-breaking run.
The current record time for the mile (3 minutes, 43.12 seconds) was set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.
Other expectations we hold may not be as mundane and well-grounded as the historic or traditional mindsets.
Sometimes those unconventional sorts of expectations might prove to be springboards, launching pads or catapults for going where nobody has ever been before.
Often these so-called “unrealistic” expectations may become the seedbeds for sprouting new ideas and concepts that have never been seen before.
These expectations are derided as “magical thinking” by more practical-minded folks who warn the dreamers that those sorts of expectations can be sidetracks that are distracting or maybe even downright dangerous.
Sometimes the practical ones are right, and sometimes not.
Whatever. The expectations we hold dear do provide the data we use to make our own personal maps of our world and to build the plans for our personal conquest of that world.
The different expectations we each hold are also why two people can stand together in the same place and see very different things.
We stick “pins” (tasks accomplished, complications overcome, goals reached, hopes fulfilled, and so on and so forth) on the maps we make using the data of our expectations because we think that will help us suss out where we are on this journey of ours.
We use our history of expectations met (or not) to develop our trust (or non-trust) in the world and in the places, circumstances, other beings, or things we encounter along the way.
Alternatively, you could think of the accumulation of expectations we pile up as us trying to jump ahead in a really engaging book and take a peek at the ending because we can’t stand the suspense anymore.
We really want to know whether it’s worth the effort of slogging through all the complications and convolutions of the thing to get to the very end. The only problem is the book is invisible and the ending hasn’t been written yet. Duh!
Expectations are a really big deal.
EXPECTATIONS ARE NOT GOALS
Some people mistake expectations for goals. They are not quite the same.
Example. You want a cup of coffee. You are hoping for a very good — possibly perfect — cup of coffee that will clear the morning fog out of your head handily so you can go tackle the rest of your day.
You set the water to boiling. You set up your pour-over drip coffee maker: You stick a filter holder over your cup. You put in a paper filter, choose your beans and grind them up, spoon the coffee grounds into your drip filter thing and then pour the boiling water into the contraption and let the water drip through the grounds.
You met your goal. You now have a cup of coffee.
You take a sip. Either the coffee is too weak, too strong, or just right. If it’s just right, your expectations have been fulfilled, you did it right, and all is right with the world. You can get on with your day.
Does that help you see the difference between goals and expectations?
GOALS are concrete. They are based on reality and facts and have a beginning and an end (some sort of result). In this example, you made the moves you needed to make and you got your cup of coffee.
EXPECTATIONS – the feelings and judgments you make about the result of your efforts – are based on more nebulous things. They are based on hopes and opinions and beliefs (a.k.a. “standards”).
You have the cup of coffee in your hand, but if your mouth and mind are not happy with the result of your actions, chances are you won’t be so happy either.
Every single action you take or don’t take is going to have this same dynamic. You’ll do a thing and get a result and then you’ll do the critique, comparing the real to your expectations of it. If you have Steve Jobs-like stringent requirements for your cup of joe, there are bound to be disappointments and maybe even angst.
So, there you are with your cup of coffee. Let’s say it is not satisfactory. Maybe it becomes a source of stress or even anxiety if you happen to be a tender and sensitive soul who really, really CARES about your morning coffee. What happens then?
Caffeine is caffeine, right? No? Hmmm….
If you’re really disappointed, you will probably either go make another cup of coffee or else you will shrug and drink the thing down with appropriate grimaces, grinching, and grief.
The difference between goals and expectations is just that: Expectations are the measure of what you define as “good enough” (or “better” or “best”).
If the not-so-good cup of coffee meets your caffeine delivery expectations, then you can call it fine and focus on your next task — one about which you might have higher expectations and care about more. If the drink really doesn’t meet your expectations, then you have to decide whether it’s worth the effort to make another cup of coffee. And so on.
High expectations can turn even the simplest thing into an aggravation or a stress-point. Only you can decide whether it is worth all the agita.
AND THEN THERE ARE ALL THOSE OTHER PEOPLE
Just as our expectations of ourselves and the world we live in shape our lives and the lives of the people around us, the expectations of the other people in our lives also shape us. We humans are hard-wired to connect, after all.
One of my favorite Bobby McFerrin videotaped performances is this YouTube video published by the World Science Festival in 2009. McFerrin “played” the audience like an instrument, hopping around on the stage and leading the group through what music experts call a major pentatonic scale of notes.
“We were talking about expectations,” McFerrin says when he jumps out of the chair set among a group of neuroscientists on the stage.
In the video he proceeds to demonstrate the way humans resonate to one another through music as a counterpoint to the dry-as-dust discussion of the subject by the lab coat guys.
At the beginning of his demonstration, the philosopher-musician gives the audience a note which he assigns to the place where he is standing on the stage. Then McFerrin gives them a second note when he hops to another adjacent place on the stage.
He then proceeds to hop around and signals that the audience should sound those two notes and then other notes that are a part of a song he is building.
Together, in unison and with very little prompting, the audience members figure out the other notes needed in the musical sequence as the “Lord of Music” moves from place to place through his song just as if there was one of those electronic piano keyboards embedded in the stage floor.
There is a lovely palpable sense of the underlying connectedness of us humans about the whole thing.
And then there is the well-known “Pygmalion Effect,” a concept which was built on the research done in the early 1960s by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen at an elementary school just south of San Francisco, California.
The Effect is explained and illustrated in this 2019 YouTube video by Sprouts, a Patreon-supported group of vloggers who use animation and simple language to explain complex ideas.
In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor in Cyprus who swore off women when he observed the daughters of Propoetus prostituting themselves. He carved himself a statue of a beautiful ideal woman out of ivory and, ironically, he fell in love with it. In the old story, at least, the sculptor’s love and adoration transformed the statue into a real woman.
How other people see us and react to us does affect our own perceptions of ourselves.
The question at the end of the Sprouts video is an important one: “…is there a way to prevent ourselves from being shaped by others in a negative way?”
In her 2001 book, FINDING YOUR OWN NORTH STAR: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live,” life coach Martha Beck says,
“Our whole lives, all the actions we take are based on our concepts of who we are. Not knowing that one crucial fact undermines everything we feel, say, or do.”
Her book guides you through the process of figuring that one out. I’ve found that her explanations, plans of actions and exercises do help to cut through the B.S. likely to be generated by all those pesky expectations – your own and the ones that other people put on you.
It might even help you deal better with other people and help you control the expectations you’re probably putting on other people as you go through your days.
Here’s a poem:
I see your beauty, how it shines.
I see the gift you carry,
And my first reaction is the greedy-guts one.
“Give it here,” I demand.
“Give it to the world,” I say.
“You were not born for the shadows,” I tell you.
“You were meant to…[INSERT ACTION HERE].”
Perhaps you want to hold it to yourself, that gift.
Perhaps this is not yet its time.
Those veils you deploy so cunningly
Swirl about you and you laugh
As you play your mirage games.
Forgive me, please.
I do love that lovely light that shines
Through the cracks in the masks you work.
I have to remind myself that
It is not my right to pull them off,
To try to catch a glimpse of your true face
Before you choose to show it.
That was rude.
You are your own self
And you are perfect as you are –
As you choose to be.
My own judgements – the way I poke and prod –
My overweening expectations of you are superfluous.
I do know that.
I am an ant walking across a butter cake
Satisfied with the one crumb I am tugging along
Toward some destination I cannot actually see.
I do thank you dear one.
The veils you so effectively ply
In your Salome dance are entrancing.
I will stand here and watch as you swirl and twirl.
Your remarkable dance makes me smile.
By Netta Kanoho
Header Photo credit: “Endless Expectations” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
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