If you have followed my musings and rants on my Facebook page and now on YouTube, you know that I am really interested in behavioral economics, behavioral psychology, Buddhism, spirituality, happiness, and productivity. In these videos and writings, I try to condense what I read and hear and learn into useful nuggets that can make a practical difference in my life and yours.
Today I would like to turn my attention, and yours, to what you expect. I want to invite you to draw back the curtain on your unexamined thoughts of the future because what you think is going to happen and what you expect shapes the way you look at the world and how you look at the world determines what you do and say.
And what you do and say affects the future.
So how you think about the future changes the future.
Henry Ford said:
Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.
Obviously, if you expect to fail you will give up more easily. If you expect to succeed you may be more inclined to keep trying, especially if you expect it to be challenging. If you expect success to come easily and you run into obstacles you either change your expectations and keep trying or you quit.
Also, what you expect changes how you experience what happens. A mentor of mine says that an expectation is a resentment under construction. Chuck Palahniuk said, “What makes earth feel like hell is our expectation that it should feel like heaven.” Here’s a funny story that illustrates that perfectly. The other day we had some friends over for pizza and Therese grabbed a black object, nearly spherical, out of a bowl and popped it in her mouth. She immediately spit it out because what she thought was an olive was actually a chocolate covered almond. Now, without any expectation, a chocolate covered almond is great (unless you’re allergic to nuts or hate chocolate). But if you expect an olive you’re going to have a bad experience.
On a macro level, one of the great sources of unhappiness in our culture is that we expect to live forever and we don’t. We expect to stay young forever and we don’t. On a deep level, it is partly our focus on an expectation that keeps us from being present to the present. Alan Watts, said:
“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality.”
Watt’s points out that our focus on the “causative past” keeps us distracted from the present as much as our obsession with the future. Interestingly enough our expectations are constructed out of the past. We base what we think will happen on what happened.
We do this consciously and subconsciously with people and situations that we know and with people and situations that we don’t know. In both cases, we are almost certainly making predictions based on bad data since you’ve changed and the world has changed. In fact, humans base much of our view of the world on what we experienced as children when most of us were shorter and weaker and didn’t understand the motivations of the larger people around us. If your parents got divorced you might go through life expecting people to leave (to give a cliched example), and because you expect them to leave you to act as if they will and unconsciously do things to drive them away. When they leave, you say to yourself “Aha! I knew it!”
But Heraclitus got it right 25 centuries ago when he said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and it’s not the same man.” So my suggestion for today is to look at what you expect, especially in an area where you want change. Take a deep breath and imagine a different future or, if you can, imagine that anything can happen. If you are having an important conversation with someone, try this actor trick to get out of the morass of past and future in your head. Focus on them. Focus on their eyes. Look at them as if you’ve never seen them before. When they talk, recreate what they said and look for the underlying, positive outcome that they are committed to. See if you can correctly identify that for them. Focus on being present in the present say what is there to be said based on what they are actually saying rather than focusing on your expectation or outcome.
See what happens when you don’t know what’s going to happen.