Blog - Expectations


I've been increasing noticing the extremely close connection that happiness has with expectations. And while none of this post is particular novel, it might be helpful for both myself and for those around me, in terms of navigating new landscapes.

While it's true that there are material aspects to success - a person's attitude alone is not by itself sufficient in terms of ensuring the completion or failure of a certain task or project - I've realized more and more that the mental and emotional attitudes of happiness comes from one's own expectations. After all, you can be faced with the same external circumstances, and have completely different emotional responses to it, depending on what your expectations are. For instance, while the speed at which a task gets completed might be objective, the attitude that one has towards that speed (if you are "on time", "delayed", "early") has to do with the expected progress of such a task. And those expectations are primarily socially constructed! Sure, you can use estimates from past experiences, or from the scope of the project, or from the priority and importance of a task, to determine what might be a reasonable expectation of the time it takes to complete some project, but that is still neglecting the inherently human aspect of it. Ultimately, we have the freedom to accept or reject external expectations, and substitute in our own.

Is that always true? Absolutely not! Because while we are free to come up with whatever expectation we might internally have, there may still be external consequences for not meeting someone else's expectation. For instance, if you are consistently completing tasks ahead of schedule, you might be given jobs with larger scope and responsibility, or be given promotions and praise. Likewise, if you are constantly falling behind, you might be given smaller tasks, or (if you have a good boss!) be given the appropriate resources, assistance, and time in order to meet those expectations [1].

So, if there are still consequences that we might like to avoid (or alternatively, rewards that we might want to gain), is there any use to setting one's own internal expectation? I would argue it is still helpful, for at least three reasons:

1) Other people's expectations are maleable.

To see this, one might first review what are the inputs that goes towards setting an expectation. Some of this was stated above (past experiences, scope, and priority/importance), but we humans are able to take feedback from others and adjust what we want. Our empathy allows us to hear from others, understand what additional challenges they might be facing, and then reevaluate expectations in light of that new information. In addition, new knowledge of the world can also shift expectations - whether that might be a new pressures or roadblocks from factors outside our own control. Again, it's ineffective to insist on having some particular expectation despite external circumstances, as that is just setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, to adapt and accept whatever may come can lead to a better mental state and approach to the project.

2) Sometimes it's okay to throw in the towel.

If you are in a situation in which it's impossible to meet someone else's expectations, and they are unwilling to change those expectations, you might need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Is the reward/consequence worth the costs? Is this a situation that you are willing to endure for some reason (ie, you believe going through this trial will make you better in the long run), or is it just some kind of toxic environment that you would rather wash your hands clean of? And if you do decide to quit (from whatever cost/benefit, moral/ethical, pro/con analysis that you choose to do), I implore you to take away the stigma of doing so. For dwelling on the sadness of changing your mind is akin to Richard Thaler's definition of a sunk cost[2]. Being able to recognize that it's okay to quit can not only lead to a healthier perspective when facing difficult tasks, but also allows you to more quickly retool and redirect your efforts to more fruitful endeavors [3].

3) Your internal expectation are useful in evaluating other people's expectations.

Everyone comes in to a project with different perspectives and experiences, some of which are more useful than others. Therefore, deciding which of other people's expectations are reasonable (and should one pay attention to!) is an important task by itself [4]. If you have a good sense of what feels right to yourself, you might have an easier time doing this evaluative task, as you have some direction in which to better understand others.

Furthermore, our own internal expectations should not necessarily be ironclad and immutable either. We most often form our own expectations for a task without full knowledge of what the project might entail, and adjusting our own perspective can be healthy. By being willing to take in new information, we can save ourselves the headaches and heartaches of tomorrow. Recalibrating your own expectations in light of better understanding of the consequences can help you be more responsive and better suited for a rapidly changing situation [5].

But then, how do you find the basis for your internal expectations? I think that this might be the most difficult part about coming to a new environment. When everything is novel, there seems to be a much larger cognitive overhead in sorting information. It's hard to grasp the relevance of what other people are saying when there is not a consistent framework for you to slide that information into. In addition, it's hard to navigate complex social dynamics while also trying to interpret and recalibrate your own thought process. I think there are at least two natural defaults here - first, you can import whatever expectations you had of yourself in your past, carrying it to the present as some kind of Bayesian prior. For the most part, if you had healthy expectations in the past, this can be useful, but be warned that with different environments and circumstances, old methods need not apply. [6] Secondly, you can mirror the expectations of your new colleages and coworkers, acting as a sponge for their desires. This is useful in quickly adjusting to new environments, but you then run into the risk of overwriting what actually works and makes sense for yourself. If it's not clear from the way that I framed this, I definitely endorse some kind of middle approach here - being cogniscent of your own unique needs and desires, while also being willing to adjust to the circumstances that you find yourself in.

Of course, adjusting your own expectations takes time aplenty. As a simple example, when I first moved to California, I felt utterly despondent every time I saw the prices (and the conspicuous consumption) around me. Going from urban south-side Chicago to the gilded streets of Palo Alto, it just felt like there was wealth flaunted at every single corner - and that I, as a lowly grad-student, was excluded from all of it. The prices felt eye-wateringly high, and I felt like I was unable to enjoy life for fear of quickly becoming a pauper. Was this mentality realistic? No! For one, it totally ignores the fact that I had actually received a stipend increase, as well as the fact that there were indeed reasonably priced goods around me. But it took about two months before that sunk into my mind, at which point I could start to intuitively feel out the reasonableness of price tags. It takes time to develop that intuition (which I might argue is a form of unconscious expectation!), and I don't really have a great way of making the in-between space feel more comfortable. The only thing that I would say is that being able to recognize and name the feeling did go some distance in slowly coming to terms with the discomfort.

As a rather important aside here, I do think it becomes critically important as a senior member in any community to recognize that their actions have consequences in setting norms and expectations. Words are insufficient here, because talk is cheap and people are smart. They know that when it comes to what expectations actually matter in a project, it's the actions and not the spoken norms that matter. For example, regardless of how many safety trainings you might put someone through, if the culture requires people to push their processes faster than what can be safely done, those trainings will not be useful. It's the true, underlying expectations that get absorbed and re-emitted throughout your organization. So, if you are in a position of some authority, it's useful to be evaluating how your own actions might be helping or harming those who work together with you.

Alright, fine, you might say. Perhaps you might accept my claim that expectations can greatly impact your own feelings. But perhaps you might then raise the question of why feelings matter at all? Certainly, there is a camp that will cheerfully argue that "facts don't care about your feelings" [7], but I would say that one's attitude completely transforms the manner in which we approach a task. It seems obvious to say that if you are not given the right tools, resources, or knowledge, you would be unequipped to complete a difficult project. Just so, having an appropriate attitude and mindset is just as important. So often, I've found that not only does my enjoyment of work depend on my expectation, so does the quality of the work that I do. If I am panicked about some deadline or meeting someone else's expectations, I nearly always end up producing something that feels rushed, incomplete, or spotty.

When we work towards healthy expectations, we find more happiness and joy in our work and life. I hope to (one day!) be able to live this out myself 😅 [8]

Some pairs of what I consider to be reality/expectations, as reference:

[1] A good Biblical reference for this might be the Parable of the Talents, see Matthew 25:14-30. I don't think I need to provide a secular reference, as those seem to be very, very plenty in every single rags-to-riches mythos from every single CEO. If you do insist, my absolute least favorite manner of putting it comes from Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad Poor Dad.

[2] I usually hear of this as the sunk cost fallacy, but if we humans really do have a sense of loss aversion (as many psychological studies seem to indicate), it's not so much of a fallacy, right? Instead, it's just a part of our natural psychology. The only thing is to recognize that we do have such tendancies in thinking, and to try and prevent them from affecting us negatively, leading to future regret.

[3] There is a surprisingly long lived trail of quotes similar to "When one door closes, another door opens.". I'll point you to this thorough explanation here by Quote Investigator, and a more irreverent quotation from Simon and Oates [E] .

[4] For some reason, I'm struck with this image of people's expectations being a "barrel of eels", an incredibly vivid image that comes from How To Read Literature Like A Professor, which apparently I read at a young and impressionable age. As far as I can tell, this is not a common image that anyone else has used. But! It seems to be useful to me - everyone's expectations are like a singular eel inside of this large, squirming barrel, influencing others and being influenced by others all at once.

[5] Of course, there is always the danger of having too maleable of an internal compass, which usually leads to accusations of being spineless, wishy-washy, people-pleasing. I am absolutely not the right person to speak to this, as I know that this is something that I struggle with maximally!

[6] Also, if you have not given much thought to your past expectations, you can slip into some automatic, unconscious expectations to your own detriment - this is very well discussed in David Foster Wallace's commencement speech, This is Water

[7] I very often consider this "facts don't care about your feelings" statement to be a bad-faith argument, as the moment the conversation shifts to something emotionally central to their identity, the argument will be dropped. In addition, I want to point out the danger inherent in framing the world in this immutable manner - it actually reminds me quite a bit of the incel mentality.

[8] Okay, one final point - I will echo from the beginning that none of this is novel. In fact, quite a lot of management science is predated on this idea - that one component of the difficult job of management is to manage expectations (and subsequently, marshal resources). If you look at modern project management philosophies - like Jira, Agile, Kanban, or what have you - quite a lot of the work that middle managers would be doing is creating and enforcing expectations for any given project, while dividing up responsibilities. Despite the unwarranted snobbery from STEM people for subjects like communications, management, and political science, there really is quite a lot of useful research and insights from such disciplines.

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