“We all have beliefs and expectations from our personal experience; it is impossible to live without them. Since we have to make some assumptions, they might as well be ones that allow us freedom, choice and fun in the world, rather than ones that limit us. You often get what you expect to get.” - John Seymour
The power of expectation is nothing short of amazing. From our tiniest wishes, to our largest dreams, our expectations virtually dictate whether or not we end up getting what we want - perhaps more so than just about anything else. Expectations matter more than the depth of our desire. They matter more than our talent. They matter more than how much we deserve it. Know a person’s expectations and you know their future.
You may be wondering, why all the hype about expectations all of sudden? Well, I was reading Ask and It Is Given, and the authors brought up an interesting proposition: the universe always answers all for which we ask, but sometimes, we don’t know how to accept. So there I was, wondering whether this makes any sense. Now I don’t know about “always,” and I can’t rationally agree that the “universe” is doing anything specific for any particular individual, but I was willing to give it a try. Something about it seemed intriguing.
For a few weeks now, I have been testing this hypothesis. Over and over again, I found that my expectations have incredible influence over my life. The day that I first thought about it, I was very tired. I got a terrible night of sleep the night before. “I knew it, I knew that I wasn’t going to get a good night’s sleep,” I thought to myself. Then, I paused. I observed that I didn’t expect to get a good night’s sleep! “Could I have caused the poor sleep and consequent fatigue purely by expecting it?” I wondered. Then, I analyzed the previous night. I recalled going to sleep very late on purpose: what’s the point of just laying in bed when you do not expect to fall asleep? And so, I inadvertently aligned reality with my expectations.
Our expectations also have profound influence over our relationships, both big and small. While I am fond of just about everyone whom I cross paths with, occasionally, there are those with whom I find it more difficult to bond. Excited to test how expectations are influencing this domain, I tried to see how how my expectations are influencing my interactions with those with whom I did not feel entirely comfortable. I simply asked myself, “are my expectations colouring how I interpret my interactions with them?”
The results were absolutely astonishing. Suddenly, everything they did or said took on a completely different spin. What used to feel like a big deal now seemed trivial. All of the tension was gone. By not expecting our interactions to be negative and uncomfortable, they became very pleasant and I began to feel comfortable with these people. They also became noticeably more relaxed and pleasant. Mind you, we were never mortal enemies, but I was nevertheless genuinely surprised at how easily I was able to turn two uncomfortable relationships into ones that were both easy and enjoyable.
Looking back at my life, I found it interesting to note how my expectations have shaped some of the most important things that have ever happened to me. They continually effect my close relationships, my job, my hobbies – just about everything.
This got me wondering: Why? And how? How do our expectations shape our experience?
Why expectations shape our lives
There are good, logical reasons why expectations shape our lives. Let’s begin by dividing expectations into two broad categories: progressive expectations and stagnant expectations. By “progressive expectation” I mean an expectation that something will happen. By “stagnant expectation” I refer to the expectation that something will not happen. This has nothing to do with whether the expectations are of a good or bad event, but, to simplify things a bit, let’s focus on what we would like to happen.
For example, if you were single, a progressive expectation would be that you will find a good partner, whereas a stagnant expectation would be that you will remain single. If you were looking for a new job, a progressive expectation could be that you will find one in the near future, and a stagnant expectation would be that you will not.
Progressive expectations lead to exploration
The first way in which progressive expectations effect our lives is by triggering a search. It we expect it to work out, then it makes sense to invest time and effort to help make that happen. When we expect something to happen we almost immediately begin looking for it. This turns on one of the most powerful tools for success: persistence. There are those who have been known to achieve incredible success on persistence alone.
Progressive expectations lead us to recognize opportunities
What we see depends mainly on what we look for. - John Lubbock
A least as powerful is the tendency of progressive expectation to lead us to recognize opportunity when it arises. If you are waiting for something to happen, and you fully expect that it will, then you’re more than willing to call out: “This is it!” at the first appropriate opportunity.
Progressive expectation may lead to excessive optimism. Maybe we’ll hit one or two false positives: “He is the love of my life! Oh wait… no. Maybe he is!” But we probably won’t dismiss Mr. or Mrs. Right when they come around if we were expecting them.
Stagnant expectations make us give up too soon
If we never thought that it was going to happen, then all we need is one failed attempt to “prove” that we were right all along. One setback, and we give up. Clearly, this will rarely lead to any kind of success, which almost always requires persistence. Unfortunately, when we expect that something we want will not happen, it is hard to stay motivated. Without the required exploration phase, even what we really, really want has little chance of materializing.
Stagnant expectations cause us to miss opportunities
Perhaps the saddest thing about stagnant expectations is that they cause us to miss opportunities. Returning to the dating example, I so often meet people who, for one reason or another, don’t believe that they will meet a suitable partner any time soon, often despite the fact that they would very much like to be in a relationship. Whenever anyone shows interest in them, they quickly find something about that person that they do not like, or some reason why the relationship will fail. This can go on for years. I believe that, fundamentally, they cannot recognize a potential partner simply because they are expecting to not find someone.
becoming aware of our expectations
Expectations are derived from a complex web of beliefs and experience. As a result, they are often resistant to change. However, I find it very helpful to become aware of my expectations. Then, I am able to see which of my behaviours are causing my expectations to shape my reality. Once I figure that out, I can modify my behaviour, if I choose.
Sometimes, being aware of how my expectations are influencing my life is all I need to do to modify my expectations, gently and effectively. If I become aware of a stagnant expectation, it helps me realize I am doing that makes this expectation materialize in my life. I then change my behaviour. This often reveals to me that my expectation was incorrect and the underlying belief then changes automatically.
Of course, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes our expectations are perfectly aligned with reality in a manner that has little to do with how we act. But being aware of our expectations allows us to actively re-evaluate them. Sometimes, our expectations have more to do with our past than with the present situation.
So if there is something in your life that you’ve wanted for some time, and it just doesn’t seem to come your way, ask yourself the following three questions.
- What do I expect to happen?
- What do I do that causes my expectations to become reality?
- What can I do to allow for a different outcome?
I will leave you with one final thought. The power of expectation is so pervasive that psychologists have coined a compelling term related to this phenomenon: self-fulfilling prophesy. When we believe a prophecy, it becomes an expectation, which turns on the powerful connection between belief and behaviour. This helps the prophesy become true, even if it would not have come to pass had the prophecy not been uttered, or believed.
Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy. – Brain Tracy