What to expect
Expectations are important, hard to set, and even harder to manage.
Expectations are important because they drive positive change in us and the world around us. Expectations are powerful because they feed on themselves: the more we want something to be a certain way, the more likely it is it will happen.
Yet, unfulfilled expectations are painful and frustrating. Constantly changing expectations are tiring, and rob us of a sense of arrival and achievement. Expectations are like a vacuum between reality and what you want reality to be. This Vacuum hurts, but it is also a motivating force, and this force drives change.
This is true in all aspects of life, but particularly clear in our work lives.
We expect our work to be meaningful, fun, and profitable. To be happy, all of these need to be fine-tuned. This is really hard, and as a consequence, many are sad at work because it does not meet expectations in some or all of these aspects.
It is already hard to find one job that just gives tons of meaning, or fun, or money. Perhaps it is a bit too much to ask for all of these at the same time from our work life. In a way, it seems we are asking our jobs to be a church, an entertainment center, and our source of wealth, all in one.
Some people are really good at focusing on only one aspect of work: the idealistic, the supremely creative, the mercenaries. But for most, there are practical considerations (cost of living, sources of motivation, moral standards) that make this type of singular attention, really hard. Very often, some level of expectation is required in all dimensions.
How should we set up and manage expectations? For one, In any domain which elicits multiple expectations (like work), I think it is worth picking one aspect to maximize and find a minimum bar for all other dimensions.
For the aspect where you have high expectations, you benefit from a high bar that can help you get what you want. For everything else where you set minimum expectations, you can still benefit from positive surprises. The less you expect, the more likely you are to discover something new about you or the world around you. This way, you may learn to care about new things more deeply.
The are other tricks that help manage expectations. Let’s use “having fun” as an expectation we want to maximize:
- Time-bound expectations: this will be boring for X amount of time.
- Task-bound expectations: This one thing I need to do is boring; I’ll get it done and move on
- Dependency expectations: this thing is boring, but it will allow me to do this other super fun stuff.
It is impossible to avoid doing work that we don’t want to do, the key is to box it (time, task, dependency) to keep us from extrapolating. We don’t want to take a crappy task and say, “this is my work”. We need to put it inside a box, deal with it, and move on.
The last tactic I would suggest is a domain-bounded expectation: It is ok for example, to expect different things from our work life and our personal lives.
A while back, a rabbi pointed out to me that most of the great Talmud sages were farmers. The lesson is this: sometimes, the minimum bar in one aspect of our lives is a high bar in another: perhaps getting a sense of meaning needs to be minimally satisfied in the Rabbi’s farming activity, but maximally satisfied in his theological work.