Expectations are a dangerous thing. They offer hope of things to come, but set you up for disappointment, too. Last night (technically, very early this morning) I had my expectations smashed. Yesterday, I received a long-awaited book from Amazon. Work demands required that I be responsible and set the book aside until evening. So with much anticipation, I started reading around 7 p.m.
Like all good book junkies, I decided to keep reading until finished. Now, imagine my utter and complete dismay as I read the last page at 1 a.m. and said to myself, “Are you kidding me? I stayed up for that?” However, there’s a problem with my reaction, I knew within a couple of chapters that this book would not meet my expectations, but I kept reading. I knew because I had read earlier books by this same author, and once you’ve read an author a few times, you come to know what works and what doesn’t.
The problem with my reaction at 1 a.m. is that I ignored the earlier cues that told me I should probably go to bed. Unfortunately, like rubber-necking at a traffic accident, I couldn’t seem to stop myself. Even though I know better, the mantra, “It’s got to get better,” repeated over and over doesn’t work either. Ultimately, my dismay wasn’t only about the book, but also about the utter failure of the expectations I’d set for the book.
Our role in the crushing of personal expectations is a side we ignore. We latch on to the more obvious villains—other people, events beyond our control, etc.—and hang our failed expectations on their necks. In the meantime, we skip over our own behavior that contributed to the failure. For instance, the last book I read by this same author was not up to the standards of her previous three. However, in my pursuit of fulfilling my expectations, I ignored the signs and considered number four a fluke. Five would surely be better.
Expectations are also a cover for our unwillingness to try something new. Benjamin Franklin, later echoed by Albert Einstein, said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” (link) How many people do you know who continually do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, and who are crushed every single time by their lack of success? Maybe it’s time to revisit the fundamentals.
Fundamental, as Noah Kagan highlights in his latest post, is great way of thinking about what you want to accomplish. As part of his explanation for why he’s so fond of “fundamental,” he poses a question that I believe is at the root of expectations: “What is the real point of something?” When you expect something to happen, why have you settled on that particular outcome? What’s the real reason driving your expectations? Think about that the next time your expectations are crushed. The answers might surprise you.
While I may have this trick down for other areas of my life, I’m afraid my books are immune. At some future point, probably sooner rather than later, I will again stay up late to finish a book. And I will again say, “I stayed up for that?” However, I’m willing to play the odds that I just might say instead, “I’m so glad I stayed up for that.” Maybe it then becomes a matter of framing one’s expectations instead of keeping them in a vacuum. Expectations may be dangerous, but I can’t imagine living life without them.