Do people live up to our expectations?

Let’s answer some reader mail…

Piotr asks:

Do you sign up to the adage that people live up to our expectations (both at work and in life?

That’s a great question. And my answer today is different than it would have been a few years ago.

Like many, I used to think people live up to the expectations you set for them. Expect them to do well, and that “empowers” them to do well.

But really, isn’t that wildly egotistical? That it’s your expectations that determine if someone else does good work? Perhaps with a child this makes sense, but I don’t think it applies to well formed adults.

People do great work because that’s the kind of work they want to do. They care about the work, they care about themselves, they care about the people they’re working with, and they care about the people they’re doing the work for. They don’t do it because you expect them to do great work. You didn’t hire them to do shitty work, did you?

Yes, you can help motivate (or demotivate) people. Yes, you can help lead (or confuse) people. Yes, you can create an environment where people feel comfortable doing/acting/being their best (or worst). You can influence through your actions, and how you treat, and teach, and act towards them, but your expectations have nothing to do with their output.

So no, I don’t believe people live up to your expectations. I believe they live up or down to their own intrinsic motivations. They do good because they enjoy doing good. Doing good is meaningful for them.

But if people do live up to anything in someone else’s mind, it’s how much you trust them. I do believe that.

I remember way back in the day I used to work at a golf and tennis store. I primarily sold shoes and tennis rackets. I was 15 — I certainly didn’t know myself back then — so there were two people who had a direct influence on how well I did my job. My manager, Greg Sheehan. And the owner, Shelby Futch.

Greg was an amazing manager. He felt like a mentor. Mostly because he trusted me. He knew I was into shoe culture, he knew I read up on all this stuff, he could tell I paid attention to the rep when they came and showed us the new stuff, etc. So he let me do my job.

The owner, however… She wasn’t very kind. She was always looking over our shoulder. She was an outright racist and wasn’t kind to some of our customers. No one really liked working for her. I have no idea what she expected of us, but I certainly could tell she didn’t trust us.

So on one hand, I loved working with and for Greg. We felt like a team, we had each other’s backs. And everyone else who worked under Greg felt the same way. But we didn’t really like working for the owner. But ultimately, I just liked shoes, and I liked selling, and Greg trusted me to do my thing, so I did good work while I was there.

It was trust.

Living without expectations

Last year I wrote how I’ve never had a goal. I was reflecting on how I just move from one thing to another without feeling like like I’m aiming for anything. It works for me.

Here’s another thing I try not to have: Expectations.

One of the few things in life we control is our reaction to things. And expectations tee up those reactions. They often set the odds on the outcome, and the odds usually aren’t in your favor. I’ve decided I’d rather stick with actual reactions rather than putting my reactions at a disadvantage by mixing them with with my everything-should-be-amazing imagination.

What’s gained by setting a bar on outcomes you don’t control?

When you don’t have expectations, you experience things objectively rather than tinted with presupposition. Then if you do happen to be disappointed, it’s only because the experience wasn’t good, not that you thought it was going to be INSANELY GREAT and then only ended up as GOOD. A good experience should always leave you smiling, rather than disappointed because it didn’t measure up to a story you made up.

Leaving expectations out of it makes everything more direct. It’s simply how you feel about something rather than how you feel colored by how you thought you were going to feel.

To put it another way, not having expectations means you can’t be let down. Being let down means something didn’t measure up to what you expected. So instead of being let down about something, I’d just be unsatisfied with the outcome. That may sound subtle, but it has a distinctly different emotional impact.

Expectations are what let you down, not outcomes. Outcomes just are. I’ll evaluate those rather than how they measured up to some artificial line in the mental sand.

In practice

I don’t drive our business with expectations. We simply do our best work and the chips fall where they may. Having expectations makes outcomes binary — you did what you hoped to do, or you didn’t. I’d prefer to live with just doing and enjoying the flow. BTW, predictions are different from expectations. Predictions don’t come with an emotional impact if the outcome doesn’t measure up. Predict wrong? “I was wrong”. Expectations not met? “That sucks”. See the emotional difference?

In my personal life I don’t have expectations of others, except to say that I assume all people are good until proven otherwise. I’m more interested in how people are, than what I expect them to be. If you ever want to be disappointed by someone, set unrealistic expectations. Of course as you get to know someone you have a sense of what they’re capable of, but even then people just do as they do, they don’t miss, meet, or exceed my expectations.

If I’m competing on something, I don’t expect to win. I want to win. I’ll do my best to win. But I don’t expect to win. My expectations have nothing to do with what I’m competing on, and I don’t control the other side. I can only do my best regardless, so why measure that against anything other than the ultimate outcome?

When I go to a movie I don’t expect it to be bad, good, or great — I just want to go see the movie. After it’s over I can ask myself if I liked it or not, not how it measured up to how much I thought I’d like it (or not). I’m convinced that people would like things a whole lot more if someone else didn’t tell them they wouldn’t like it. Stuff’s pretty great, you know.

When I head to the airport, I don’t dread security or lines or waits. Why? Because I have no expectations of those things. And let’s face it — expectations of those things are usually bad. So if they are actually bad, you expected disappointment and got it. What a sad way to start a day.

When I go for a run I don’t expect to run a 6 minute mile, but if I do, great. And if I don’t that’s fine too — I still went for a run. If I was competing, that might be different, but I’m just enjoying.

When the new iPhone comes out, I’m never disappointed that it didn’t have this or that. I’m usually delighted. Why? Because I wasn’t expecting anything other than something new. I can judge that thing when it exists, rather than setting up opportunities to be upset. The number of people who complain about something new that didn’t exist five minutes ago is a testament to the negative power of expectations.


Is this indifference? It’s not — I’m not indifferent. I have plenty of opinions and points of view. Some strongly held, others less so. But I only consider outcomes once they happen rather than writing a script in my mind that I react to after the fact.

I wasn’t always this way. I used to set up expectations in my head all day long. Constantly measuring reality against an imagined reality is taxing and tiring. I think it often wrings the joy out of just experiencing something for what it is. So over the past few years I’ve let those go and ended up considerably happier and more content.

And really, every day has a shot at being pretty great when your only expectation is that the sun comes up.