Not So Great Expectations

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” -Anonymous


The last time I passed the message board for the school down the street, it read:


This reminded me about how a speech that failed to meet its author’s expectations changed history.

When Things Don’t Go as Expected

Tim Harford, author of Messy: The Power Of Disorder To Transform Our Lives, tells the story of Martin Luther King’s expectation-laded “I Have a Dream” speech to Shankar Vadantam on the “Embrace the Chaos” episode of the podcast Hidden Brain.

“He had prepared that speech meticulously the night before. He’d stayed up very late. He was operating on a number of constraints. It was quite a tight time schedule. The eyes of the world were on him – he knew that. There were also various political constraints about what was his response going to be to the civil rights legislation. Would he embrace it? Would he criticize it as not going far enough? Other civil rights leaders were making different claims. He had to balance all of those.”

About six minutes into delivering the speech he came to the line, “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” And something in his gut wouldn’t let that sentence past his lips. He stopped reading and started to improvise.

“Go back to Alabama. Go back to South Carolina. Go back to Georgia. Go back to Louisiana. Go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities.”

The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson seated behind him, probably recognizing the shift from speech to sermon, yelled out a request for some rhetoric Dr. King had spoken from the pulpit, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

And you know what happened next.

When Things Do Go as Expected

In the Netflix documentary with the long-winded title: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, Jim Carrey relates the somewhat mystical tale of how he manifested his expectation of success by writing himself a $10 million check and giving himself five years to cash it.

Counter to his expectations, becoming the highest paid actor in the world by adopting and becoming a phony persona made him depressed and miserable.

He’s currently famous for a quote that’s become a social media meme.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see it’s not the answer.”

Blame it on the Brain

Jim Carrey’s quote points out a paradox about expectations that comes to us courtesy of evolution.

In his Just One Thing post: “Hold Wants Lightly,” neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes, “Your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.”

While Jim Carrey’s wealth and fame served evolution in terms of offering him increased mating opportunities, it oversold him on the pleasure it would bring him.

I can only imagine how frightening it was for Dr. King to drop his expectations for the script he’d written and risk improvising in such a volatile situation.

But, sticking with his expectations about fame and fortune led Carrey to long-term suffering. Overcoming the fear of dropping his expectations helped Dr. King make history.

Radical Acceptance Versus Expectations   

In her Psychology Today blog post, “Three Blocks to Radical Acceptance,” Karyn Hall Ph.D offers up the advantage of radically accepting failed expectations versus sticking with them.

“You stop fighting reality. When you stop fighting you suffer less. That means you don’t feel hot anger in your stomach whenever you see the person who got the promotion you deserved and you don’t seethe with resentment when you see your best friend who is now dating your boyfriend. You accept what is, learn and go forward.”

Three common obstacles to dropping expectations?

1. I don’t want to let them off the hook.

2. Accepting means I agree. I will never agree.

3. I need to be angry to protect myself.

She offers very reasonable responses to each of these obstacles if you care to check them out, so I’ll continue with a fourth.

4. When we’re stressed, the reasoning part of our brain is the first to go off line.

Reasoning Doesn’t Work

I know when my partner E. finishes a carton of milk because I see it on the kitchen counter.

When I empty a carton, I rinse it out and put it in the recycling bin based on the expectation that it’s now ready to move on.

I made my case to her about my expectations with points like: unpleasant aesthetics, inefficient use of counter space, attraction of ants, and, if left unchecked, pestilence.

She never argued. Sometimes she’d say, “I’ll try to do better.”

Nothing changed, including the unpleasant sensation I experienced every time I saw an empty milk carton on the counter.

After years of failure and frustration in my attempts to get her to change her behavior, I changed my expectation: not that empty cartons belonged on the counter, but that she would one day start recycling them.

I’d like to say that I consciously decided to change the expectation, but I didn’t. It happened through years of trial and error. Over time I developed the habit of recycling the carton as soon as I saw it. The unpleasant sensation went away quicker. The stuff about the expectation is how I rationalized it.

Reality Check

Expectations are nothing more than hypotheses we test in an effort to meet our needs. It may not be insane to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, but it’s certainly not efficient.

Sticking to my original expectation (empty milk cartons belong in the recycling and the person who finishes the milk must put them there) wasn’t meeting my needs. That unpleasant feeling I had every single time I saw a carton on the counter told me this.

Ignoring the evidence that my hypothesis was failing (wasn’t meeting my needs) lengthened the time it took to test another hypothesis (empty milk bottles belong in the recycling) that did.

One way to improve the effectiveness of expectations is to practice interpreting results.

Ten Minute Exercise

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Take a few deep breaths to focus your attention. Then breathe normally.

4. Rest your attention on the breath.

5. When a feeling arises, notice whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant.

6. Notice whether the feeling is based on an expectation either present or past.

7. Notice whether thinking about the expectation changes the feeling.

8. When you’re ready to accept the feeling, return your attention to the breath.

9. Continue noting feelings as they arise, expectations, change, and acceptance until the timer sounds.

As a bonus, try to note feelings, expectations, change, and acceptance as they arise during your day.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.