Friday, January 3, 2014


Happy new year everybody.

When thinking about what to do for the first post of 2014(!!!) I felt an expectation of myself to write something very inspirational and useful.  I want everything written on this blog to be a goldmine of information and new ideas, so I put a bit of pressure on myself whenever I sit down to type. And this is especially true for the first post of 2014.

It’s the new year!  There needs to be something big and important to kick it off.  Admittedly, there isn’t much actual difference between December 31st and January 1st (or from January 1st to January 3rd), but I still feel like something is expected.  Something special.  We expect it of ourselves, with resolutions and new beginnings and so on.  Hence, it makes sense to write the post about expectations themselves.

We are awfully demanding of reality and other people to meet our expectations.  Sometimes we do this while ignoring how reality actually works.  Whenever a tendency or phenomenon falls into the “sometimes good, sometimes bad” category (you know, just about all of them) I find it helps to ask a rather simple question:

“What is the purpose of this tendency or behavior, and is it serving me?”

How do I define an expectation?  It’s an assumption of how things will transpire in the future, typically based on past experience (experience, experiment, and expectation all share the same root for a reason).  I expect that when I open my front door, I will find myself on the same street that I did yesterday.  I expect there will be breathable air.  I expect it will be cold, because it was cold yesterday and I didn’t read or hear about an incoming warm front anywhere.  As it turns out, I was right; I did not instantly get lost, I didn’t asphyxiate, and it was a wise decision to wear my coat.  Thanks, brain.

What is the purpose of an expectation?  To decrease cognitive burden while guiding me to correct action.  I expect it will be cold, so I don’t spend more than two seconds deciding on bringing my coat; I also don’t start sweating when I step outside.  My expectation is accurate and serving me, so we're two for two.

When does it fail to serve me?  It may fail to serve me if it’s just inaccurate.  It might be inaccurate based on chance, on flawed data, on misinterpretations, or my own silliness.  So perhaps I checked a weather forecast from last week and got things wrong. Perhaps there happened to be no wind and a clear sky so the sun made things warmer than I thought it would.  Maybe I heard "32" and thought it meant Celsius instead of Fahrenheit (heck of a mistake to make).  Maybe I weigh the fact that I’m living in Texas more heavily than the fact that it was thirty-two degrees outside yesterday, and so I expect it to be warm anyhow.

The point is, our goal with expectations is to have them match with past experiences, act correctly based on that, while not freaking out even if they aren’t met.  If our expectations aren’t met, then we were:

--Working from flawed data, limited experience, or no experience at all
--Using flawed logic to interpret our experience
--Victims of chance
--Being silly
--Some or all of the above

Perhaps you have been asked (or asked somebody else) the question “well, what did you expect?”  Did you expect anything?  Did you expect things realistically?  Or were you just operating from limited data and experience? You don't even have to ask that question with an accusing tone. Ask it calmly, with disinterest: what did I expect? Why?

Any time your expectation isn’t met, you want to try and figure out what the flaw in the expectation was; you want to do so accurately so you can plan better next time. That is the very point of experience and learning! It's not to abandon expectations altogether, but to improve them and be more flexible with them. If you don’t do that, then not only was your expectation poor, your response was poor.  Poor responses include denial, excessive frustration, giving up early, hating yourself, and blaming other people and things for no reason.

Let’s say you’re playing a tactical RPG and your character has a 95% chance to hit.  You have reasonable (but not perfect) expectation that you’re going to hit.  When you miss, what is your response?  Very often it’s frustration, because 5% chance to miss feels so low that it might as well be zero.  But you try to keep your head, you expect it will hit next time, and when the attack misses again, you assume the game is BS and snap the disc, because you just died and lost an hour of data to a one-in-four-hundred chance occurrence.

But rather than get extremely mad, this is a chance to learn.  Broken expectations tell you, “I could be improving my logic, my data, my skill, or I was just unlucky.”  Perhaps the 95% chance isn’t accounting for a hidden modifier, and this is your chance to become aware and be smarter in the future.  Perhaps this was just unfortunate and will never happen again.  Perhaps you decide that 95% isn’t reliable enough to form the lynchpin of your future plans in the game and you become more cautious and conservative.  All of these are more healthy than rage and denial.

“This shouldn’t have happened!”  “This is BS!”  Well, in a world where a 95% chance to hit is true, two subsequent misses are possible, and should probably happen at some point to somebody.  So denying reality itself doesn’t actually help you.  Then again, losing a battle in an RPG to two 5% misses is still frustrating and hard to account for, so I expect that most people would be frustrated and annoyed if it happened to them.

Perhaps you make a New Year’s Resolution to change a habit of yours, and you are very optimistic that it’s going to work this time.  Even though you have a lot of other obligations, and you’ve tried changing the habit in the past and it didn’t work.  Why do you expect it will work this time?  Are you planning to do it differently?  Do you now have contingency plans for your setbacks and hurdles?  Do you plan to be more forgiving and get less dejected when things go wrong, so that you won’t quit and get back up when you fall?  Have your plans and expectations shifted according to past experience?  Hopefully yes, so your new expectation can match reality better, and guide you to action that will meet your goals. If you understand what happened when expectations weren't met in the past, you can either change your actions, your expectations, or both. Or neither, if you have faith you were just unlucky.

Sometimes the way we respond to our own mismatched expectations actually affects the outcome.  I expect that people who get less frustrated, who stay flexible, and who shift their expectations will be more successful in the long run than those who don’t.  I expect that people who leave leeway in their plans for failure and setbacks, who understand that reality is volatile and not everything is under their control, who forgive themselves for imperfections, they are more likely to stick to goals than people who don’t.

Lastly I expect you to share this with everybody you know. I think this is reasonable.

Enjoy your new year, and may it exceed your expectations.  Thanks for reading.

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