Thoughts on high expectations
In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold's high expectations for a phat Christmas bonus are dashed upon the rocks when he opens a letter from his boss:
Ellen: Clark, what's wrong? ... Honey? It's bigger than you expected?? ... [Laughs nervously] .... Smaller? What is it?
Clark: It's a one-year membership for the jelly of the month club.
Talk about a big let-down. Clark was planning on putting in a pool with the bonus; a new fruit-based spread each month is not quite the same. I'm sure we've all been in Clark's shoes before… I never did get that Xbox 360 for Christmas.
Clark’s disappointment is a textbook example of the following fundamental idea from psychology:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
Happiness isn’t based only on what we experience, but how that experience compares to expectations. This is the reason why a stock's price declines when earnings are still positive; they were worse than expected.
Things vary from expectations, influencing how we feel, in many different ways. Here are a few examples:
Accepting a job in consulting:
Expectations: I'm going to travel around the country and help C-Suite executives formulate business strategy
Reality: PowerPoint specialist
Moving across the country:
Expectations: My problems will all go away
Reality: New problems will inevitably emerge
Starting a business:
Expectations: I’m going to have full autonomy over my work
Reality: How do I get health insurance?
Expectations: She reads; she must like the books I like
Reality: Who is Sally Rooney?
It's possible to interpret the Happiness = Reality – Expectations formula as evidence that we should all just have permanently low expectations. This way, we avoid any and all “jelly of the month club” let-downs.
As well-intentioned as this advice may be, there is a flaw here.
Not all positive expectations about the future are bad. Psychologists have shown that realistic positive expectations can be highly motivating, especially in goal-oriented circumstances. When is this true? When the positive expectations we have are related to an activity in which we’ve already proved ourselves competent.
I’ve had prior success in running marathons, so it can be motivating for me to have high expectations for my next one.
But we run into trouble when we develop positive expectations about the future that are not based on any kind of past experience or evidence. These are called fantasies. We’re setting ourselves up to be disappointed because we’re hoping for something severely de-coupled from what could realistically happen. We resemble Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, yearning for a career in the NFL that's just never going to happen.
I’ve had no prior success in sketch comedy (yes, I auditioned once and became derisively known as “purple shirt guy”). So it would be highly frustrating for me to keep hanging on to a dream of being on SNL one day. That ship has sailed.
In this vein, any advice about “following your passion” is well-intentioned, but again, the devil is in the details. If you’re not skilled, your fantasies will forever go unvalidated by apathetic customers, fans and critics. That’s why Scott Galloway recommends his MBA students at NYU “follow their talent” and choose careers they can be good at. Their positive career expectations can actually be met by their underlying talent.
Career ambitions are just one example of how/when positive expectations can be helpful...or not. But we typically have expectations about many different things, such as our relationships, fitness goals, and sports teams. It's worth asking: are we setting realistic positive expectations? Or are we conjuring up fantasies that could never possibly be fulfilled?
If Clark paid better attention to the terse interactions with his boss in the weeks preceding Christmas, he may have realized there wasn’t much evidence supporting a $7,500 check for his non-osmotic, non-nutritive cereal varnish.
Clark was indeed living in a fantasy.
For this holiday break, I’m trying to avoid fantasies myself. I’m not going to create an unrealistically long and complex to-do list that will just end up 35% finished. There is no possible way I can go skiing, see 10+ different friends, go to Virginia, and read Gödel, Escher, Bach in 10 days.
And I know I’m not getting a new Xbox… those days are long gone.