We all have expectations for our lives, our families, our careers. When events and outcomes match up with our expectations we feel some level of satisfaction, perhaps even contentment.
We’ve all experienced situations where the reality didn’t live up to our expectations. Temporary disappointment is the most common reaction.
Too much disappointment can lead to unhappiness. The advice from masters of happiness is to change our expectations. I’m not going to argue with that advice in this post.
Instead, I want to explore these questions:
- Who defines our expectations?
- What happens when someone else’s expectations determine our success?
- What do we do when we can’t define the expectations of others?
Personal Expectations vs. The Expectations of Others
The trite and obvious answer is that I establish my expectations. I’m in control of my life and I’m the person who defines the measures for what will make me happy.
That’s true at the macro level. In the big-picture sense.
But on a daily basis we also operate in relationship with others. With the exception of desert hermits, we live and work in society.
And, like it or not, the expectations of others matter in our lives.
I hadn’t really thought about this much until last week. I was listening to a recent episode of The Fizzle Show, a podcast on entrepreneurship and the topic was discouragement. The main point was to set realistic expectations for defining entrepreneurial success, the usual stuff about not expecting to get a million visitors a month to a new site or selling tens of thousands of dollars of product each day.
Then one of the hosts, Chase Reeves, started talking about how the expectations of others was the major source of stress in his life when he worked for someone else. He said something about it being hard when you don’t know what the expectations are.
Lightbulb. Make that mega-watt lightbulbs.
The Stress of Vague Expectations
The main source of work stress in my life in recent years has been figuring out expectations, not managing them.
When I know the expectations of others, I can deal with them. And so can you. But when expectations are hidden, opaque, nebulous or conflicting, work becomes much more challenging.
I touched on one example in another post–my first job as a lawyer–when expectations of the firm didn’t align with my expectations based on my summer associate experience. Although it was a stressful situation because I was inexperienced and young, it was actually easy to resolve. I knew the the firm’s expectations and I made the choices that seemed right for me. I managed the situation.
For most of the rest of my working life, I’ve known what my employer expected and strived to perform in a way leads to the accomplishment of the task or objective. That’s not to say I’ve relished every moment or never experienced work stress. But the stress wasn’t uncertainty about someone else’s expectations or what I needed to do to succeed. The stress was usually about finding a way to get it all done or my perfectionist desire to achieve a predefined outcome.
Most recently, though, I’ve felt like I’m trying to capture the shadow of an apparition that’s into shape-shifting. If you get my drift.
And when Chase started to talk about his experience with stress when he couldn’t figure out expectations, I realized that was the source of so much of my stress over the past 4-plus years: The competing and less-than-specific expectations of others for what it takes to succeed in my position.
I’m generally comfortable with uncertainty in my personal life, but this has been my first experience with competing and uncertain objectives in my career. Tenure-expectations are usually well-defined.
I’ve already found a way to deal with my stress, but it’s been more about letting go of the results rather than managing expectations. I’m just trying to do the best I can each day and focus on my efforts and actions and not worry about outcomes.
The problem with stress management is that stress is still lying out there, like a tiger waiting to eat me for dinner. Sometimes it will awake from a slumber and stalk me at 2 a.m. Lately, it’s showing up as a gnawing beast in my gut. As someone who’s committed to health I know this isn’t good for me.
I don’t have the solution to this specific problem.
But the first step to successful problem-solving is defining the problem. So I’m already feeling empowered.
How do you manage competing or vague expectations?
I’d love to hear your story. Leave a comment or ask a question below.
I don’t have all the answers, but we can work through this together. Let's start a conversation.