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Expectation vs. reality (and how to manage it)

As humans, it’s natural for us to want to know what might/could happen in the future—on a primal level, it’s a way of preparing ourselves for danger—but our inability to remain present and not project ourselves into next week or next year can stunt personal growth and lead to unwarranted disappointment, stress, and the illusion that we’re unfulfilled.

There are of course certain instances in business when it’s necessary to predict where you’re going and where you want to end up—five year plans are a good example of this—but on a personal level, it’s important to keep your expectations in check, not only to avoid dissatisfaction but also to help you succeed.

Here are five common expectations to look out for, and how to manage them.

1. Doing/having this will make me completely happy

Close up of a pair of hands holding a bunch of golden eggs.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Looking to a future event or purchase that you think will ensure your happiness is a mistake we’ve all made and unfortunately will continue to make. The social conventions and pressures drilled into us since we were children have conditioned us to believe that the key to fulfillment is always just around the corner.

Whether it’s that car that you couldn’t wait to get but then soon got bored of and saw one you liked more, or that deal you imagined would change your life but subsequently left you feeling empty—depending on outward circumstances for long-term happiness is a trap. There is of course nothing wrong with ambition and enjoying the fruits of hard work, but unless you’re content with yourself, no amount outward success (and all its material rewards), is going to make you content.

2. Opportunity will find me

Dreamcatcher hanging from a tree, blowing in the wind.
Photo by Nazym Jumadilova on Unsplash

You are never going to find true meaning and success by simply taking whatever comes your way. Also, the things that hold the greatest value and contribute to your growth are inevitably found outside your comfort zone, so it is up to you to actively seek those things out.

Assuming that opportunities will naturally come your way not only makes you complacent, it leads to procrastination and allows other people’s decisions to hold sway over your future. The only way to combat this is to decide what you want, plan how to get it and then go after it.

The stark reality is that nobody is ultimately going to help you live your dreams. Yes, you might get help along the way, but in the end everyone is (rightly) pursuing their own ambitions and success and have very little interest in your own. It is entirely up to you to take action and make things happen.

3. Everyone will like me

Four rows of red peppers with a single yellow pepper lying on top of the pile.
Photo by David Rotimi on Unsplash

Caring about what other people think of you is probably the biggest hindrance to lasting happiness. And while I’m not suggesting you do whatever you want and say whatever you please, bothering yourself too much over whether people like/agree/understand you will prevent you from being your genuine self.

If you’re not true to yourself and your values, you’ll end up going after things you don’t really want; your heart won’t be in it and therefore you’ll be less likely to succeed (plus you won’t enjoy the work). Another consequence of worrying too much about other people’s opinions is you might find yourself agreeing to something you don’t really want to do (or not speak up when you should), just to keep avoid conflict and remain ‘liked’.

Accept that no matter how you behave or how well you treat people, there will always be those who don’t like you. This isn’t in your control.

4. I’m going to succeed/fail

Man in mid-air. leaping across a canyon.
Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Being convinced you’re going to succeed can be just as destructive as believing you’re going to fail.

If you start out with a negative mindset, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. You may even push yourself towards failure subconsciously, just to prove a silly point to yourself. Equally, being brash and arrogant when starting out can cost you dear. Talking big and boasting will only set you up for a (sometimes very) public fall.

The alternative to both of these is to create realistic, even slightly modest expectations, and then take things as they come. This way, if you fail you won’t be hit with heavy disappointment; if you succeed, you’ll have the satisfaction of having gone beyond yourself while remaining humble.

5. I can help him/her to change

Hammer lying on surface surrounded by many nails.

Whether it’s in personal or business relationships, thinking you can change someone is a dead-end. People are very set in their ways, and lifelong habits are very difficult to break—this applies to you too!—so hoping someone will address some aspect of themselves that you struggle with is foolish.

Sure, it’s good to advise people and give guidance, especially when you’ve been asked to, but in the end it’s up to each individual to decide if and how they should change. You can make suggestions and plant seeds but beyond that it’s out of your hands.

To save you the time and frustration of trying to change someone, either accept them as they are and learn to work with them, or end the relationship.

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