The Art of Setting Expectations

“If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.”

~Terrell Owens


As humans, we almost always have some sort of expectations. Whether it’s a movie, a meal at a restaurant or a hotel, there are often preconceived notions floating around in our heads.  

If it’s positive expectations, we may be anxiously waiting in pure anticipation, eagerly chomping at the bit. If it’s negative expectations, we may be frittering away with complete dread at the thought of something. Our brains can’t help but formulate theoretical outcomes and mental schemas. It’s what we do.

Sometimes this works to our advantage, and we’re more than happy with the actual outcome. Other times, it’s a detriment, and we’re disillusioned by it.

Here’s an example. Say one of your favorite musicians hasn’t put out an album in a while, but their new release is coming out shortly.

Scenario 1) You’re completely amped up and excited about the album. You’re convinced that it’s going to be total gold and maybe even a little life changing.

Scenario 2) You don’t have very high expectations. The musician used to make really great albums, but there’s been a downward trend over the course of the last few years. You’re thinking that the new album will be lackluster.

Let’s now say that the album is totally average. Not bad, but definitely not great. Listenable, but nothing to write home about.

With the first scenario, I bet you would be disappointed, uninspired and maybe even a little bitter. You’ve been let down, and you’re not happy about it. You would probably tell others that the album is garbage and not to waste their time listening to it.  

But with the second scenario, I bet you’re okay with it. Even if the album would be rated right in the middle with a 5 out of 10, you would be fairly pleased. You would probably enjoy listening to it and might even recommend it to others.

The bottom line here is that the album is exactly the same, but the expectations you set will either result in delight or malaise.

Over the years, I’ve learned that having the right expectations is tremendously important. Going back to Terrell Owens’ quote at the beginning; it’s imperative that we align our expectations with reality. Not that I would classify T.O. as someone who’s inherently wise or sage-like, but he does make a really good point.

We tend to find ourselves in trouble when our expectations become excessively high and the end result simply can’t live up to them. It’s like setting a ridiculously lofty goal that just isn’t feasible. We’re basically being delusional and setting ourselves up for disappointment.

But at the same time, if we set our expectations too low, especially when it pertains to ourselves, we may fail to grow and make progress. It can also make us pessimistic and sap the joy out of our lives.  

I think the solution here is to set realistic expectations. While we can never know for sure what an outcome will be, we can usually make a fairly accurate guess based on previous data, patterns and trends.

For example, from everything we know about Motel 6, we probably wouldn’t expect our room to overly posh and luxurious. We would expect a no frills stay and would be happy if we don’t find any roaches in the bed. We might even expect to see some seedy behavior going down — drugs being sold and prostitution.

On the other hand, if we’re staying at a Four Seasons Hotel, we would have dramatically higher expectations. We would expect swankiness, comfort, extravagance and opulence.  

The key is to use our accumulated knowledge, insights and any other pertinent information to set realistic expectations for ourselves. That way we’re less likely to be disappointed, and we can live more satisfied and fulfilling lives.

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