For things I can’t control, anyway.
Within the past year, I came upon the realization that my expectations can determine my level of happiness. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately and thought I’d set down my conclusions here.
Maybe this is something that most people have already realized and I’m just slow to figure it out. (It wouldn’t be the first time I missed the forest for the trees.) But maybe not. And maybe — just maybe — the thoughts shared here might help you achieve more happiness in your life.
Expectations for Myself
Throughout my life, I’ve always had high expectations for myself.
The way I see it, I’ve got two things going for me: my brains and my health. I’m white, which is helpful in today’s world, but I’m a woman, which is not — I figure that those two factors sort of cancel each other out. I’ve got a college education, but just a BBA degree — not an MBA or PhD or any sort of fancy accreditation that puts letters after my name. I come from a middle class family which is neither rich nor poor — although in the past 50+ years, I’ve experienced life on most points of the financial spectrum.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve got what it takes to succeed in life, but I don’t necessarily have anything going for me that would make it easy. I have to work — sometimes very hard — to succeed at the goals I set for myself.
And I do — for the most part, anyway. I succeed at most things I try to do. Sometimes that success is tiny and not worth remembering; other times it’s surprisingly huge and it changes my life. It depends on what it is, of course, and how much of myself I throw into it.
To me, that’s what life is about: trying new things, setting goals, working to achieve them, moving on to the next thing.
I’ve been called a Renaissance woman by people impressed by my widely varied interests. And I’ve been called an overachiever by people jealous of my ability to do the things I’ve done.
This is who I am — this is what makes me. I don’t have kids or, at this point, a life partner to distract me from what I want to do. No one is cheering me on, but no one is holding me back, either.
I set high expectations for myself and I work hard to meet them. When I meet my expectations, I’m happy and move on. When I don’t meet them, I’m disappointed, but I either try harder or let it go and move on.
But this isn’t about expectations for myself. It’s about what I expect of others. Unfortunately, my expectations for myself play a major role in my expectations for others.
Expectations for Others
Because I set high expectations for myself, it made sense to set high expectations for others. After all, if I could do something I set out to do, shouldn’t others be able to do it, too?
In hindsight — which is always viewed with 20-20 vision — I realize now that I got it all wrong.
My earliest example of this was when I worked for the New York City Comptroller’s Office. At the age of 22 — I graduated from college at age 20 — I was a supervisor in the Bureau of Financial Audits with 13 people under me. Every single one of them was older — some old enough to be my mom or dad. When it came time to do employee evaluations, I used my high standards to evaluate my staff’s performance. I can’t remember how the scale worked, but it was likely 1-5 or something like that. I my mind, 5 is “perfect” or nearly so. And very few of my staff members met my idea of perfection in the various areas I had to score them on. So there were a lot of 3s and 4s but very few 5s. And, to my surprise — remember, I was only 22 — these people had a problem with their scores. One of them even went so far as to accuse me of trying to sabotage her career. I wasn’t. All I was trying to do was point out where improvement was possible.
But possible for who? Possible for me, certainly — after all, I had definite ideas of how I could do it better. But possible for the staff member? Maybe not. Maybe she was doing the absolute best she could do. Maybe it was my expectation of her capabilities that were wrong. Maybe it was my expectation of how the job should be done that was wrong.
Expectations reared their ugly head any time I had people working for me. I always expected people to do a task to my standards, whether those standards were based on quality, speed, or any other factor. Back in 2003-2004, I ran the fuel concession at Wickenburg Airport’s FBO. I had about ten people working for me. Yes, I expected my employees to arrive on time for work. Yes, I expected them to limit personal phone calls on the company phone during working hours. Yes, I expected them to know how to store a delivery of ice cream in a freezer without guidance. Yes, I expected them to do their jobs as defined, as I trained them to.
This is the reason I don’t have employees anymore. Dealing with them frustrates the hell out of me.
Expectations were definitely a contributing factor to the failure of my marriage. I expected my husband to do the things he said he was going to do. I expected him to achieve the goals he set for himself. I expected him to keep his promises to me, especially when those promises affected my life and work. I expected him to be honest and to communicate with me when he was unhappy. When he failed to meet my expectations, I was disappointed. When he failed over and over with most things I expected him to do, I became frustrated and annoyed. I didn’t enjoy my time with him and he apparently didn’t enjoy his time with me. Our marriage dragged on with bad feelings on both sides for a few years longer than it should have because I kept expecting things to get better when they simply got worse.
Low Expectations Prevent Disappointment
And that brings me to my realization: having low expectations for others prevents you from being disappointed.
Let’s look back at my airport FBO employee situation. Maybe I should have expected some employees to have trouble getting to work on time — even though they lived within 10 miles in a town with no rush hour traffic. Maybe I should have expected some employees to occasionally not show up for work at all without calling. Maybe I should have expected that some employees, when bored, will fill their time with lengthy phone calls to their spouses or kids. Maybe not everyone is smart enough to figure out that ice cream, when delivered, needs to go right into the freezer and that each bin in the freezer is set up for a specific type of ice cream so it can be put away orderly so customers can find it.
I expected my employees to be able to handle the job the way I handled it — after all, I did the same job, too. But was it fair to set my expectations of their performance as high as I set my expectations for my own performance?
Now let’s take this the next step.
Suppose I don’t expect an employee to show up on time. And sure enough, he shows up late. He has met my expectations. I’m satisfied.
And what happens when he shows up on time? Or early? He has exceeded my expectations. I’m thrilled.
Pretty simple example, huh? But you can see how this works. Just set low expectations for anything you don’t have control over. You’ll never be disappointed.
Here’s an example of how I apply this in my life today. I’ve been playing around with online dating. And my apologies to friends who have managed to find a viable partner through this completely impersonal method of meeting people, but I have never seen a bigger collection of losers and liars in my life. Seriously. Half the guys look like they crawled out from under a rock and have to rely on selfies for profile photos, likely because they don’t have any friends. They describe themselves as “average” build and say they go to the gym regularly, yet their photos show an obvious couch potato with a beer belly. Most of the others are married or barely separated, shopping for some side action or their next caregiver.
Want some real examples? One guy claimed to be a pilot at the local airport; when we actually met, it turned out that he hadn’t flown in more than 15 years. Another guy claimed to be divorced, but was living in an unfurnished apartment and admitted that neither he nor his wife had filed for divorce yet. Another guy claimed he was single, then admitted that he was in a long term, long distance relationship and was exploring online dating as a “social experiment.” Another guy, when taken for a flight in my helicopter, lost his lunch. (I will never get the image of vomit on his mustache out of my mind. Needless to say, that didn’t go any further.) And this doesn’t even count the guys I’ve messaged with who haven’t been worth meeting.
I see how bad online dating is. And although some friends have made good matches this way, I don’t expect to. My expectations for online dating success are rock bottom low. In my eyes, it just isn’t going to happen. I’m so sure it’s a waste of time and money that I closed my online dating accounts.
Yet just before my Match account was closed up last week, I met not one but two possible matches. From their profiles, they look good — same interests, interesting backgrounds, right age range, not bad to look at. A person with high expectations might be very encouraged.
But I’m not. Although I hope to meet one or both of these men in person — we’re in touch via email and text right now — I don’t expect either one to be my next life partner. My expectations for success are low. So when things don’t work out, I’m not disappointed. I never expected them work out so the result has met my expectations.
What happens if one of them turns out to be someone I do want to spend time with? And the feeling is mutual? Well, then the match has exceeded my expectations. I’m pleasantly surprised.
And if one of them happens to become my next life partner? Well, then I’m thrilled!
- Low expectations = seldom disappointed, often pleasantly surprised, occasionally thrilled.
- High expectations = often disappointed, seldom pleasantly surprised or thrilled.
I don’t know about you, but when something works out better than I expected, I’m happy. So it logically follows that low expectations can lead to happiness.
It Takes Effort
After almost a lifetime of having high expectations for myself and others, it’s not easy to set the bar lower. It takes a conscious effort. Sometimes, when things don’t work out the way I expected them to, I have to remind myself that I really shouldn’t have expected it to work out right. Over time, I’m getting better at it.
And I’m really seeing a difference in how it affects my overall level of satisfaction and happiness with life.
What do you think? How have expectations — high or low — affected you?