The Truth about Our Expectations

On Oct 6, 1727, 39-year-old Alexander Pope wrote in a letter to John Gay, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Expecting nothing is one way of avoiding disappointment. But what a heavy price to pay, for when we expect nothing, we get nothing. Imagine a honeybee staying away from flowers to avoid the possible disappointment of encountering nectarless blossoms.

Just as the world gladly provides nectar to bees, it provides the vast riches of beauty, joy, and opportunity to those who have the right attitude. Those who expect good, look for good. And those who look for good, find it. But those who expect trouble, look for it and find it. And the good or unhappiness we find will be in direct proportion to our expectation. That’s why Ben Sweetland wrote, “The world is full of abundance and opportunity, but far too many people come to the fountain of life with a sieve instead of a tank car… a teaspoon instead of a steam shovel. They expect little and as a result they get little.”

So, the first lesson about expectations is to expect much and look for much. For when we do so, we shall discover our cups runneth over. Don’t expect problems, but expect solutions to every problem. Don’t expect difficulties, but expect to grow stronger with every difficulty you overcome. Don’t expect hard times, but expect every need to be met, for it is in expecting that we look, and in searching that we find.

Some people read their horoscope or consult an oracle with the hope of learning what to expect in the future. We don’t need a horoscope or oracle to know what to expect. All we need is some commonsense. If I enroll in a course, study hard, and do my assignments, I will pass the course. If I skip classes, don’t study, and don’t do my assignments, I will fail the course. Simple wasn’t it? Why would I need a horoscope or oracle to learn what to expect in the future? Each act I take, or fail to take, creates my future. What can I expect from the future? I can expect to reap the rewards for my right actions and suffer the consequences for my wrong actions!

The second lesson on expectations, then, is to remain aware of our actions. And to take actions that lead to bright expectations while avoiding actions that lead to undesirable expectations.

Will everything I work toward come about? Who knows? I can have positive expectations, but I cannot have full knowledge of what the future will bring. Why would I want to know the future? It’s supposed to be a surprise. Life is a party and the future is a present we receive. We open the present with anticipation, not knowing what to expect.. As Denis Waitley says, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”

During the time you’ve been reading this article, the world has changed. Change is the stuff the world is made of. What can you expect in the future? Change! If you’re suffering now, cheer up, for life will change for the better. If you’re sitting on top of the world, get ready for a change of fortune. But don’t worry, you’ll be able to cope and learn from the experience.

How can I enjoy today’s good if I expect better tomorrow? Some people make the mistake of living in the future, looking forward to all their expectations. As they do so, they overlook the treasures of today. We only live in the present. The past is dead, the future is but a dream. So enjoy what you have today, and put off tomorrow until tomorrow.

Although I used Alexander Pope’s quotation in my opening to show that if we expect nothing, we will receive nothing, there is another interpretation. And that is, if we release our expectations for tomorrow, we focus on today. In fact, considering his keen insight, I’m sure that’s what he meant. No doubt he would have agreed with the genius Stephen Hawking, who wrote, “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.” So it’s all a matter of balance. We want to have expectations, but we don’t want to dwell on them to the point that we ignore the present moment.

Some make the mistake of expecting a future calamity. But if it comes, they suffer twice. Once, worrying about it before it arrives, and second, they suffer after its arrival. And what if it doesn’t come? All of their worrying needlessly robbed them of their peace of mind. Besides, don’t we have enough to be concerned about for today? Why pile on top of that tomorrow’s possible problems? No wonder some people cannot cope!

Expectations are the bars we reach for, the goals we chase after. They can challenge, strengthen, and lift us. By setting high expectations, parents, teachers, and supervisors can play an important part in helping those they look after rise to new levels of achievement. After all, rarely do followers exceed the expectations of their leaders. But care must be taken to inspire and encourage, while avoiding pressure. As in other cases, balance is necessary. That is, while setting expectations for them, you must also teach those you look after to ignore the expectations of others and set their own! In other words, the greatest gift you can offer them is to awaken their own expectations. Share with them the words of Tiger Woods: “One of the things that my parents have taught me is never listen to other people’s expectations. You should live your own life and live up to your own expectations, and those are the only things I really care about it.” Stevie Wonder shares the same idea: “You can’t base your life on other people’s expectations.”

When setting expectations for ourselves, we should make sure they’re realistic. Going to medical school or becoming a Jesuit priest (which takes 13 years) may be reasonable expectations, but if I’m already 102 years old, they’re not realistic goals. Also, persistence has to be tempered with commonsense. Every time I ask Mary for a date she says, “No, Chucky, you’re too yucky!” Don’t you think that after a certain number of rejections my expectation becomes unrealistic? When we set a goal and fail to reach it, we can try again by following another path. It doesn’t make sense to repeat the same mistake over and over again. And since the future is uncertain, who knows, my expectation may be impossible to achieve. Therefore, it may make sense to have a backup plan ready, just in case. Persistence, relentless determination, unwavering focus, and flexibility. We need them all. It’s a matter of balance and knowing when to use the proper tool.

See for a deeper discussion of managing expectations.