The Theory of Expectation Control

The Theory of Expectation Control is a necessary compliment to the Theory of Relentless Positivity—the idea that you constantly exude confidence and the expectation of success. The Theory of Expectation Control is something quite different—far more internal and, in fact, far more challenging for me. As with the previous theory, this was a gift from a mentor: Professor Shaul Cohen of the UO’s Geography Department. This theory has to do not so much with your behavior, but rather with how you frame your own experience in the world.

Essentially, manage your expectations.

Me at about five, demonstrating that expectations (i.e. "I know how makeup works and this will make me look awesome") do not always match reality.

This mindset is a bit tricky for an optimist like me. I am an advocate of making lists of the incredible, pie-in-the-sky potential adventures and experiences the near future might hold. I make lists of all the crazy places and experiences I might have some day. I expect the best. I dream. I get carried away.

Shaul’s advice is to keep your feet on the ground in planning for the future. It’s to push for the big goals you have, and to do all that’s possible in making things happen. But when it comes down to the outcome of a particular awaited response or the level of “awesome” in any near-future activity, his theory is to try to play things cool on an emotional level. The idea being that you’ll be pleasantly surprised if things go well, and not completely devastated if they don’t.

I’m not very good at living by this theory.

However, I do think it is sound advice. No matter how hard we try and what we do to make things happen, there is an awful lot that’s beyond our control in this world. Expectation control theoretically helps lessen the blow when things don’t go your way.

There are several times that this mindset has made an enormous difference for me.

One is a success story: when I applied for the Mitchell Scholarship (with Shaul’s mentorship along the way) I, of course, threw everything I had at the application process and at imagining what the scholarship could do for my academic and personal future. It was an exercise in bringing together an enormous range of details and preparations, from buying a suit to learning about Ireland’s politics (the suit was useful, I’m not sure the poli sci crash course made any particular difference). However, once I got to a certain point of preparation—once I was actually on my way to the interview and I had already done everything that could be done—I let go of outcomes. I told myself to expect nothing more than a fascinating weekend in Washington, DC, surrounded by other Mitchell applicants and the members of the Mitchell Scholar community. To drive home that mindset, I dreamed up some pretty significant “Plan B Futures” for what I would do with my year if I didn’t get the scholarship.

I’d like to think that mindset—that control of expectations and letting go of outcomes—made a difference in the quality of my interview. I guess I’ll never know for sure. But I did end up getting the Scholarship, and the Mitchell year did lead to enormous changes in my life.

Me and Shaul right after I defended my Master's thesis. (Side note: I'm the one out of uniform there--the Oregon hoodie is his all-occasion outfit.

Another example of expectation control—this time gone wrong—also has to do with the Mitchell. Shaul warned me that I should not get too far ahead of myself in dreaming up how my experiences in Ireland and Northern Ireland would be. As he told me, it’s a different place with a different culture. But, as I have previously written about, the different academic culture took me completely by surprise when I arrived at Queen’s University in Belfast. It’s far more self-directed, far less discussion-oriented, and deeply different in terms of how you find opportunities and connections. Not bad, just different.

Different in a way that drove me absolutely crazy.

I had let my expectations run away with me, and for a few weeks I sat bored and lonely with only four hours of class per week to fill my time and a real struggle to try to connect and begin the work and community building that I care so much about. I had thought it would be easy, or at least it would be possible. And of course it was, just not in the way or at the pace I had expected. And it took me precious weeks of my short time there to adjust and appreciate.

Expectation control does not mean pursuing less, or aspiring to “safer.” It does not mean selling yourself short or playing it safe.

This is particularly important with students who are coping with high expectations and with recent graduates dealing with difficult post-graduate realities. It's important for college and scholarship applications, with study abroad, and upon entering a new relationship. Expectation control is about setting yourself up to know that new opportunities will be challenging. That new ventures will face real setbacks. That new places will sometimes feel strange in an uncomfortable way, rather than in one perfect, facebook-ready stream of welcome adventure.

And it means adjusting the obsession with outcomes. Once you’ve done your best, let things go a bit. If things aren’t perfect, don’t obsess over the imagination of how much better things could be. Frame your story and your plans in a way where it’s possible for you to be successful and be satisfied.

Right now, as I’m in the midst of a plans-dreams-and-schemes moment in my life, I’m struggling with expectation control. I’m communicating relentless positivity and trying with everything I’ve got to stay on an even keel. Take bold action, but take a deep breath.

Like I said, this doesn’t come easy to me.


Is this something you try to do? Something you're good at? Do you think this is the right mindset, or that Shaul and I have it all wrong? Please leave stories, strategies, and comments for me here.