Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Lowering Expectations

Somebody responded to one of my posts, saying that lowering your expectations is a common strategy for people to reduce stress and do better.  I agree with this.

To clarify my own original point, I don't just lower my expectations.  I explicitly instruct myself to lose.  I convince myself that failure is inevitable.  But then, to avoid cognitive dissonance, I think "well, I must be okay with that, because I know I'm going to fail, but I'm still playing.  So clearly I have to enjoy myself."  And then I play better.  I don't know if that's best for everybody.  But it did make me think more heavily about the implications of lowering your expectations, so I want to talk about it today.

The first point I want to address is this: unless we go to great effort to do otherwise, we measure things relatively.  So if your expectations are low, you will measure performance and results relative to those low expectations and almost always be satisfied.  In this way, you are not always the best judge of your performance or results, particularly when your expectations are low.  This idea comes to light particularly when looking at the big fish in the small pond; maybe Jackie is the best player on the local soccer team.  Because his competition is (probably) of a low caliber, he rates himself relative to it, and finds himself the best.  Then he plays somebody who knows a damn about soccer and gets crushed.  If you've ever played a video game with somebody who is used to beating all their friends, you may understand this well!  We measure relatively.

For further, somewhat related reading, consider the psychological phenomenon of anchoring.

However, to counter this, we (tend to) perform better when our expectations are lowered because we are relaxed.  By not wasting mental energy thinking about failure and disappointment and frustration, we free up more to think about the game.  By not tensing up the entire body, we avoid wasting physical energy where it isn't useful.  The flight-or-fight mechanism is useful, but not over a prolonged period of time; it needs to come and go at the right instances.  Unnecessary stress triggers the release of those chemicals long before they're wanted, and low expectations can counter stress.

But how do you trick yourself even when you know better?  How do you lower your expectations so you can perform better, when the reason for performing well is having high expectations?

Well, to start, think backwards a bit.  We are already amazingly good at tricking ourselves when we know better.  Think of all the times you've done it to yourself, when you've felt an emotional response that didn't match with your own logical interpretation of events.  The key is triggering the emotional response.

Visualization is useful here; we're very good at emotionally reacting to things just because we imagine them happening.  So imagine yourself losing or playing poorly and loving it.  Imagine yourself laughing every time you screw up and shrugging it off.  Imagine a revered authority figure that you trust giving you a big hug and saying, "it's okay."  Imagine walking off the field after getting slaughtered with your arms held high and having a big smile on your face.  Imagine the worst case scenario and then imagine being insanely happy.

Then go out there and try your best, because you are free to do so.


  1. Amazing work out there Rob. I was cheering so hard. All your matches were so hype.

  2. Absolutely INSPIRATIONAL gameplay from you at KoC. Hopefully your lowered expectations will be a little higher next time. ;)

    Congratulations! ^_^

  3. I'm still trying to develop my own trigger for "just don't care and have fun" .