Well if you thought the last post was about abortion or birth control, then you’ll think this one is about me being pregnant. Life is strange. 🙂
In my last post about how we make plans and goals I mentioned that one of the things we have to decide about our goals may have to be how realistic they actually are and this relates to expectations. Lowering our expectations may make it easier to achieve our goals, but we may not then know how far we could have gone, while having expectations too high may leave one with feelings of disappointment. Of course, as I also mentioned before, there may be other variables that we cannot predict that might lead one to not meet our goals, but very often we internalize our failures and can chastise ourselves for setting our sights too high.
My thinking about expectations was once again inspired by a podcast I listen to called Invisibilia on NPR. In one episode titled “How to Become Batman” we hear the story of Daniel Kish who had both of his eyes remove due to a disease at 13 months, but can “see”. He uses echolocation by making clicking noises. As a result, he is able to ride his back in traffic, hike, cook, walk around and has an amazing ability to know the distances objects are from him through
his echolocation technique. In his story he tells us about a kid from elementary school who joined his school from a school for the blind, and unlike Daniel this kid was helpless and had to be led around everywhere. Daniel had developed his echolocation technique early and was already quite independent at a young age. Daniel believes that one of the reasons that blind people can’t see is because nobody expects the too. That if we raised our expectations that many blind children could develop this echolocation technique. Daniel teaches children whose parents are interested but he says it’s a challenge because as Daniel says it takes a lot of trial and error and can get, well, bloody. The point is that higher expectations are the best path to reaching higher heights. Students who have high expectations for their students generally get students who do perform at a higher level, even if they don’t meet those expectations. If you try to get an A in a class, you will generally do better in that class than any student who comes into the class just hoping they pass. People often talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and this is a large part is how astrology works and how people come to validate the predictions of psychics is because once an idea is planted we often want it to become true and it does. Students who say to me “they can’t do science” generally perform poorly.
Having high expectations has its downside however. Having high expectations as a professor I think are good, but good pedagogy is also guiding the students towards a path that will reach those higher heights. Without it, students can disengage quickly and not progress at all. And of course feelings of disappointment, feelings that you did or will not meet the expectations of another can be a source of depression and anxiety. How many times have we had high expectations in a movie only to be disappointed that it wasn’t all that good, whereas a movie we had low expectations for we are often pleased or pleasantly surprised when the movie is as good or better than we expected? A good portion of our country feel that there is nothing we can do about criminals and so the best thing we can do is get a gun, in contrast to those who know that the murder rate can be smaller and that there is nothing wrong with having expectations that we as a society can reduce the rate of violent crime. Given perhaps our propensity to focus on the negative, it is no small wonder that we often learn in life to lower our expectations or even develop apathy or pessimism as a way of avoiding grief, heartache, or anxiety. Apathy in this case, to me, is an attempt to have no expectations, whereas pessimism is to always expect the negative outcome. Personally I feel that apathy eventually leaves us to become emotionless, taking all the joy out of life at the expense just so we can avoid grief. Pessimism, in my opinion, is almost worse because when the expectation is for things to be negative they generally are, and you are unlikely to ever be pleasantly surprise. In fact many pessimistic people eventually turn into people that can find the bad in every good situation. So while some can take it to extremes, there is at least a reason why we often lower our expectations in one situation or another.
So even though we know that higher expectations out of ourselves or others, lead to better results than lower expectations, why do we not always set our sights higher? I have discussed before the conflict we all face between security and risk, and I believe this is part of that same conflict. Lowering expectations can give us a better sense of security and in the end might would lead to on average more happiness. High expectations on the other hand are a risk, but more often yield better results, even when we don’t meet those expectations. Just recently I saw a very interesting short video shown below that asks the question, “Should we be pursuing happiness?” Maybe happiness is overrated, maybe it’s not what really drives us. In the video he talks about great scientists and artists who are ready to suffer for their work. I have seen
myself some of the finest minds in my field spend little time with their spouse or children for the sake of discovering something new. In the video Zizek talks about scientists who, even knowing they could die from radiation poisoning, still worked with radioactive materials because they set their sights on discovering something important. Sometimes greatness comes at the expense of even their very lives. I’m not saying we are all destined to be great, and I am not trying to imply that there isn’t value to happiness. I think that some balance is part of good emotional health, and a clear mind, and we would likely be even more productive if we strove for a little more balance in life, but once again we see the value of risk and how it constantly pushes ourselves and society to become more.
So what is the answer to dealing with the disappointment of not meeting those expectations? It seems that most advice, and indeed I had even trouble finding any positive quotations about expectations are to not have expectations or to lower them. My feeling is that if we are to maintain high expectations and avoid the pitfalls associated with them then it is a focus on the process. To focus on where you’ve started and where you are now, as opposed to where you aren’t. Try to remember that few people with lofty goals ever meet them, and very often getting close is still pretty amazing, because what you’ve learned along the way, not only a specific sense, but likely other important values like perseverance and courage will serve you well as you change directions or perhaps continue down the path you are on. Likely there are plenty of things to be happy about and proud of even when you fall short. In the end I feel there is more shame in stagnation over progress, unless you already in a utopia, but I haven’t met anybody like that before. Happy New Year all! Don’t be afraid of being bold with your resolutions.