“Expect the best, plan for the worst.” It’s an expression I like, especially in business. Yet while I see logic in these words, I don’t find them to be motivating counsel. If anything, I’m more likely to be wary of expecting the best. And while that sounds like a negative attitude, as it turns out, it may be anything but.
Then again, when expectations are low, we may find ourselves pleasantly surprised by smaller wins and unanticipated kindness. In protecting ourselves from disappointment, strangely, we are more apt to appreciate “less” as “more.”
Attitude of Gratitude
So where does our pop culture preoccupation with gratitude fit into this picture? What about those of us who have been repeatedly “knocked down” by events that we don’t control?
Personally, I think looking for small wins makes sense. I think gratitude is useful. Life can be challenging, and plucking good moments out of tough days may be just what we need to get through — with our heads held high.
But I can’t say that I routinely walk around feeling grateful. When I genuinely feel grateful, I express it. But “faking” gratitude? Forcing our moods? Must we, really?
The New York Times takes up the topic, as in “The Structure of Gratitude” David Brooks writes:
Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.
A “surprising kindness.” I like that. And I’m glad to see that he points out that the kindness is undeserved, though I would have chosen a different word. Perhaps “unsolicited” would fit the bill. (Don’t we all deserve kindness?)
Still, there’s an amusing irony in what he’s saying. If we expect kindness, then we won’t be surprised by it. And if we expect it and don’t experience it, we’ll be disappointed. If disappointment recurs repeatedly, aren’t we more likely to become jaded? If we’re jaded, then won’t we ultimately lower our expectations? Then, might we circle back to being surprised by unexpected kindness?
I will say it straight out: Unmet expectations leave me soured, cranky, and disgruntled — even if only temporarily. Now come on. Hubby promises to cut back on going out with the guys every weekend, but never actually does it. Aren’t you ticked off? Or your kid in college says she’ll party less and pull up those grades, but it’s junior year and she’s yet to deliver. Don’t you feel like cutting off her spending money and giving her a piece of your mind?
You face yourself in the mirror daily and resolve to stick to your diet — and continue to fail. Aren’t you slipping into a serious funk?
Unmet expectations that become the norm do damage to our optimism (at the very least), and possibly, to our capacity to give off that inexplicable “good stuff” that tends to draw others (and their kindness) to us.
A Catch-22? Perhaps.
So what about that gratitude?
The Times article explains that for people who are readily thankful, life is constantly surpassing expectations. For those of us who expect more of other people the opposite is true, and we are constantly disappointed.
… people with dispositional gratitude take nothing for granted. They take a beginner’s thrill at a word of praise, at another’s good performance or at each sunny day.
I might add this thought: Expecting the best presupposes an openness to good things and an ability to visualize them. Don’t we need both?
Anticipating the Best in Ourselves
As I consider the pros and cons of expecting the best, I confess that I nearly always expect the best of myself, and I rarely live up to my expectations. It’s how I’m built — setting the bar high. However, I’ve learned the hard way that to function in the “real world” where nothing is perfect (and certainly not me), I must accept “good enough” in certain tasks.
And good enough really can be excellent.
But I do continue to expect the best of myself in certain roles, in particular as a mother, a partner, and a friend.
I don’t always succeed of course, but I try not to disappoint myself in myself, and if I do, that’s when I know a hard look is in order.
I also tend to expect the best of other people who are close to me. If I’m disappointed, now that I think about it, I believe I lower my expectations too easily. I cut them a good deal of slack when I night do better to stick to my guns and nudge them toward a superior performance.
Quality, Quality, Quality
I’m thinking now of the example David Brooks uses to begin his column, contrasting an upscale hotel to a more modest motel.
The luxury accommodation?
We reasonably expect the best, and if the towels or linens aren’t to our liking or the coffee machine isn’t sufficiently high end, we feel let down. In the No-Tell Motel?
We’re happy if the mattress has no bed bugs and Mr. Coffee comes with a little Maxwell House. A good mattress and Starbucks? We’re thrilled.
When it comes to goods and services, our expectations are higher when we pay more, and lower when that’s not the case. And I suppose this plays right into what Mr. Brooks has said. With lower expectations we are pleasantly surprised when expectations are exceeded. When we set the bar high and results fall short, we’re bound to be discouraged, disappointed, incensed or possibly, to stop expecting much at all.
Expecting Too Little From the People in Our Lives
While I may think that managing expectations is a practical way to live life, too few expectations of others — especially of those we love — may lead to accepting much less than anyone reasonably should. Is it ever right for one person to carry the far greater load emotionally, logistically and financially?
How often do women (especially) come to accept far too little in a spouse or boyfriend — whether it’s their attention, their fidelity, or their participation in what concerns them?
And while this is not solely the domain of women, as we grow older, the reality of our culture is that men continue to have a larger set of options in the social realm. In my opinion, that leaves women too easily and too often lowering expectations, simply to have or retain some kind of partner.
Is that really what we want?
The Pros and Cons of Expecting the Best
Nothing is so black and white as being wholly optimistic or pessimistic. Not for most of us, anyway. And nor would I say that an apparent absence of optimism necessarily means we’re cynical.
We may expect the best when we have more control over a situation, which includes the benefit of our experience. And similarly, we may be hoping for the best but planning for the worst if we have little to no control over the factors that determine an outcome.
We may have experienced success at hoping for the best when it comes to friends or children, but we’ve had mixed results on the professional front. Then, we may maintain our high standards personally, to reduce the discomfort of feeling disappointed.
We may also tend to embrace those best expectations when we’re younger, because we don’t know any differently yet.
Still, I see many advantages to expecting the best. Among them:
- Setting the bar high motivates us to achieve
- Setting the bar high encourages others to achieve
- Expecting the best is often about pursuing our dreams
- Seeing the best in others may bring out the best in them
And the cons?
Disappointment, of course, and yes, the possibility of ceasing to believe in ourselves or each other. Likewise, if we sink into a state of defeatism, we may stop setting ambitious goals or chasing our dreams. But don’t most of us wish to hang on to expecting the best when it comes to whatever we hold dear?
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