The Burden of Expectations on Experience

‘Don’t burden my experience with your expectations!’

I don’t really know where this phrase came from but I like it!  Often uttered with a bit of a smile or an air of lightness, it is intended to bring to attention that someone is expecting you to be, or do something different.  You happen to be quite fine currently being or doing whatever you are, and you are gently reminding the person to just back off a bit and focus on what THEY are being or doing and let you have this experience as you choose.

If you change one word in this phrase it takes it to a whole different place, one that I think is important to focus on.

‘Don’t burden my experience with my expectations!’

We of course need expectations, they are probably even inevitable as we consider the future and try to imagine what future, big or small, we might want to have.  Expectations help us to plan, to organize and to focus on what we want.  They also serve to significantly constrain what we experience.  Our focus becomes our expectations and our capacity to focus outside of this becomes problematic.  More problematic is that deviation from our expectations is seen as bad, tainting our experience with a cloud of negativity.

A simple example, perhaps recently encountered by many.  You are planning a nice family get together and dinner.  People are coming from various places and you have high expectations of good conversations, laughter, good food and a nice time to be had by all.  Everything and everyone is living up to your expectations until dessert is served and it’s burnt.  For a surprisingly large number of people this mismatch of expectation and experience will have far greater impact than its logical relevance.  It becomes imbued with the silent ‘Oh, how could I?’ or ‘Oh, how could you?’ and any number of other silent catastrophes that begin to cast a shadow of negativity over the entire experience.

While we may see this experience and smile in recognition, what we often do not recognize is that we create expectations for our experiences that we do not even think about.  We build unstated expectations into almost every experience, often idealized expectations, and do not even realize they are there until they do not match our experience.  By then we have uttered sentences that start with, ‘If only…’, or ‘It would have been better if..’, or ‘I wish that…’ all expressions, when completed will hold some hint of negativity.

As this pattern firmly entrenches itself we find no experience lives up to expectations.  It always could have been better.  Also, experience itself gets constrained into a narrower and narrower band of perception.  We cannot be present to what is actually emerging since we are constantly judging the experience as good or bad against unstated expectations.

Basically we don’t experience much and we feel bad about what we do experience…. Yuck!

Yet this is what the burden of expectations can, and does create.  I think we would be better off thinking about the IDEA of expectations rather than the expectations themselves.  The IDEA of expectations allows for the excitement of what we want and what could be to push us forward with energy.  The burden of the detail is not nearly as important.  The IDEA of expectations provides for a much broader range of actual experience to measure up, perhaps very unexpected experiences.

It seems hard to imagine taking this concept of the IDEA of expectations into our organizational lives.  What on earth would a performance objective look like?  What would a strategic plan look like?  Somehow I think they would look more like what we actually do experience rather than what we expect we should experience.

And there would be much less weight to carry around.

Author – Tom

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