In the 1960s, an unlikely duo combined to discover the effects of expectations on human beings.
Lenore Jacobson, the principal of an elementary school in San Francisco, and Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard psychologist, wanted answers to questions like: Do expectations placed on people affect their performance? Do preconceived notions play any role in how people build expectations? And do such expectations help people improve themselves.
So they conducted an experiment that would reveal interesting answers.
Rosenthal and Jacobson randomly selected students from Jacobson’s school and told their teachers that the students were at a point where their intellect could scale rapidly.
This was not true. There was no data to indicate that the selected students would perform better than their peers.
But to Rosenthal and Jacobson’s surprise (actually, not really), the students outperformed their peers. They scored higher in the end-of-year IQ tests than the students whose scores were similar to theirs at the beginning of the year. And throughout the year, their improvement was better than what would normally be expected.
What led to this remarkable growth?
When Rosenthal and Jacobson pored through the data, they discovered that the answer lay in the teachers’ actions. The teachers spent more time with the “gifted” students, provided them with more detailed feedback, and encouraged them to respond in class more. And the students responded by raising their scores.
The message is clear: Human beings behave in ways that align with the expectations placed on them. Your partner will be more loving if you anticipate him to be. Your colleague will be more cooperative if you expect her to be. Your child is more likely to do well in studies if you believe she has what it takes.
But this is not how things look in real life, is it? If anything, the opposite appears far more common. People always fall short of our expectations. Our partner is less loving, colleagues are less cooperative, and children fare poorly than we thought they would.
Even we fall short of our own expectations much more than we would like. An example is the number of New Year’s resolutions that get broken within two months. The same holds true for our long-term goals when it comes to money, relationships, career, and happiness.
When failing to meet expectations becomes a pattern, we begin treating them like the weather. Each time we fall short, we just shrug, as if to say, “It’s the weather. What can I do?”
Does this happen because we’re incapable of meeting our expectations? Far from it. Each of us has what it takes to not just meet, but also exceed our expectations.
Where we go wrong is in setting our expectations.
The Flawed Mindset While Setting Expectations
We all have dreams.
We dream of becoming fitter, becoming bestselling authors, or turning our startup into a unicorn.
Dreams are nice. They give us a point to start. But when we confuse them with expectations, we set ourselves up for failure.
Suddenly, we mount unnecessary pressure on ourselves. I have to lose 50 pounds, my book has to sell at least 10,000 copies, my startup’s valuation has to be more than a billion dollars.
These are great moonshots to pursue. But the thing with moonshots is that everyone crash-lands while taking them. Even SpaceX’s Falcon rocket launcher failed four times before finally landing back safely.
SpaceX team didn’t give up during those failures. But most of us don’t have that kind of superhuman grit because we live in environments where failure is looked down upon.
Each failure makes us perceive ourselves in poor light and affects our future expectations. So, the next time we face a challenge, we assume we’re more likely to fail, and subconsciously put in a half-hearted effort. This inevitably leads to failure and feeds into our notions about ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle.
Each success, on the other hand, builds confidence in us. We back ourselves to do it again and subconsciously work harder to turn our expectations into a reality. And even if we miss our target, our effort makes us feel good enough to want to do it again.
It’s obvious that we all want to succeed — or at least make progress — much more than we fail. The simplest way to achieve this is to set realistic expectations.
How to Set Realistic Expectations
Many people assume realistic equals average. If the average person loses 5 pounds in 4 months with average effort, that’s realistic compared to wanting to lose 5 pounds in one month.
But pursuing average expectations will keep you at an average level. Instead, you want to pursue goals that stretch you just outside your comfort zone but not so much that you crash, which put you in a calm but heightened state of attention.
Thus, anything you can achieve by stretching yourself slightly outside your comfort zone is a realistic expectation. And according to psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the most effective way to do this is to choose activities that push you close to the edge of your competence.
If you’re struggling to lose weight, a realistic expectation would be to make yourself sweat in each workout session, but no so much that your body hurts for the next three days.
If you’re struggling to save money, a realistic expectation would be to divert 10 percent of your monthly income into an account that you don’t touch.
If you want to grow your startup, a realistic expectation would be to increase its revenue by 30–50 percent each year.
When you pursue expectations that are not just possible but also likely, you are more likely to work harder, as the teachers did for the “gifted” students which, in turn, strengthens your self-esteem.
Positive self-esteem gives you the confidence to take up larger goals, become more resilient, and experience small wins that become stepping stones to larger successes.
Musk didn’t just think making reusable rockets was possible; he also believed it was highly likely. The teachers at Jacobson’s elementary school didn’t just think an improvement in the IQ scores of the chosen students was possible; they thought it was highly likely.
For years, I felt like a failure as a writer because I repeatedly fell short of my moonshots. Then in 2020, I came across Coach Tony’s advice:
Your writing target should feel like a light challenge, not a struggle. If you do struggle, simply adjust the word count down.
Now I aim to write 1,000 usable words daily and have one offline conversation with a writer each week.
Some weeks, I exceed my expectations. In others, I flounder. But on most weeks, I get within touchable distance of my goals. The excitement coupled with the small wins I’ve begun to experience lately encourage me to return to the blank page every day.
I apply the process to my exercise regime as well.
In addition to my existing workouts, I increase my pull-ups, push-ups, and squats by 3, 10, and 20 reps respectively each week. Three months after beginning this process, I could do 45 pull-ups, 125 push-ups, and 150 squats within 30 minutes.
Bringing it Home
You don’t embark on a new goal with a clean slate. You bring your self-perception, which is critical because it dictates your expectations.
These expectations are promises you make to yourself. The more you keep them, the more you trust yourself to keep them in the future, and the harder you work to make your actions match your words.
Train yourself to keep your promises by setting realistic expectations. Work on activities that let you feel sweet pain and empower you to take on bigger challenges.
The results will yield remarkable results in the long term. A 1% improvement daily is not just a 365% improvement in a year. It’s an unbelievable 3,778%!
Can you imagine what you can achieve if you become 37 times better each year? The sky is the limit!