You have happy accidents, and those happy accidents turn out to be some of the most fantastic things that can happen
— Bob Ross
One of the heaviest burdens in the world is that of expectation. Expectations from society, family, friends. Yourself. But what really are expectations? And why do they hold such sway over our day to day — as well as the decisions we make over a lifetime?
An expectation seems cleanest to describe as an outcome, behavior or observation that matches a mental model.
Reality, on an individual level, is a conglomeration of mental models. Ones that we create, update and delete with experience. These models often describe feedback loops that generate patterns, which we rely upon to make predictions of the future. In this way, expectations are nothing more than distortions or caricatures of the future.
So why then do expectations feel so much heavier than the prophetic statements issued by your local tarot reader? Or the angry insults your parent/partner/child throws at you when upset? After all, they are both equally attempting to, more or less directly, predict the future.
I believe the weight of expectations Is directly tied to our relationship with the future. A byproduct of our conditioning, if you will. For those who are used to things happening according to plan, who are used to meeting the level of expectations set for them, the weight increases directly with time. The more we meet others/our own expectations the more we are conditioned to continue meeting those expectations. An almost Pavlovian reward seeking. It’s not necessarily negative, the positive side is where we can leverage these expectations for motivation and performance. “Rising to the level of our expectations” is a common phrase.
But the corollary to that is the saying “we do not rise to the level of our expectations but rather fall to the level of our training”. Most of us are trained to achieve, meet and surpass our goals, feeling disappointed when we don’t. The more we achieve, the farther the goalpost moves and the heavier the fall when we swing and miss.
But as any real hitter will tell you, you miss far far more shots than the ones you make. Yet in our own lives we expect to be batting at a solid 100%.
Where things get dangerous is when we fall to the level of our training. To the level where we are pathologically conditioned to seek external gratification from meeting arbitrary milestones and benchmarks. To when we feel crushed when we miss them, though we never truly stopped to ask why the post was moved in the first place. And where it is eventually heading.
All this ramble is to say, the weight of expectations feels more like a byproduct of conditioning than a fact of life. We can leverage this conditioning to tremendous benefit, for ourselves and society. But many times the negatives outweigh the positives and in these moments it’s truly worth asking — what are these expectations from? Why do they exist? And are these expectations helping me move toward my ultimate goal?
Too often the expectations are unspoken, unevaluated and baked in to our culture, reducing our own agency and compromising our relationship with the future.
Buddhist philosophy speaks of the “Beginner’s Mind”, a state where we drop our preconceived ideas, the pressures of performance, etc. and approach a problem or space with an open mind and clear eyes. In effect, approaching life in a manner that reduces, or at the least manages, our expectations. It’s an interesting concept, one that’s easier to put to words than put to action.
But given the danger that unconscious, Pavlovian, expectation-chasing can have I think it’s one that’s worth at the very least considering for maybe it could reveal things that are, truly, happy accidents.
Till next time,