Skip to main content

On the importance of setting expectations

   The winter holidays are almost here, and the sense of excitement is in the air.  Even if you don’t celebrate anything in particular, you can look forward to the vacation week between Dec. 25th and Jan. 2nd forced upon us by office closings and our kids’ school break.  During this time, we tend to expect magic to happen: a wonderful family celebration, or perhaps that special present we have been dropping hints about.  We anticipate that everything will be just how we imagine it, but does reality match this expectation? Not usually...

   As humans, we are built to anticipate the future. In fact, forecasting and scenario analysis is what has kept us alive in an evolutionary sense, like: “If I leave food lying around in my cave, will a bear stumble into it and wreak havoc?” Yet, as Daniel Gilbert explains in his brilliant book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” humans tend to be terrible judges of what will make us happy. I won’t give away Gilbert’s punchline; only that he blames our “wild” imaginations for the lack of satisfaction with our real (as opposed to imagined) lives.

   My solution to the problem of reality not matching an imagined future is setting expectations, and I can give you a very concrete travel-related example of its importance.  Just about exactly 5 years ago, in December 2012, Mike and I embarked on a holiday vacation trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico.  If you google the Fairmont Mayakoba hotel, where we booked a “Casita” style room, you would see images like these (though these ones are taken by me):
Vacation expectation
   What kind of a vacation comes to mind? Right, a beach vacation, and the word “casita” associates with a private beachfront bungalow. This is how we set our expectations.  But the reality was quite different.  The Fairmont is a sprawling resort built mainly on and around the canals of Mayakoba.  The main hotel building, as well as most of the casitas, are tucked away in the jungle, quite far away from the beach, and only a handful of bungalows have any kind of view of the ocean.  Right away, we were disappointed. Our casita didn’t have “the view” (at least, not one we expected).
Vacation reality
   To get to the beach, we had to ride on a golf cart, and it took a while to get there.  We ended up spending most of the vacation at the pools and off the resort.  (The parents reading this blog at this point are rolling their eyes. Boy, people who don’t have kids can be so spoiled! Yes, we were complete brats back then.)

   Fast forward 5 years to November 2017.  Extensive research revealed that the same Fairmont Mayakoba has a highly-rated and affordable kids club, which is why we booked it again – this time, for a family vacation with Evan.  We knew what to expect: canals, wildlife, lots of pool time, great food, and maybe one day at the beach.  The vacation turned out to be a huge success. The canals seemed beautiful and peaceful, and sitting by the pool seemed to be ultimate relaxation. (Who needs the hassle of washing off the sand and itching from the salt, right?)  Our room once again faced the jungle, but it seemed private and green and relaxing. We didn’t set expectations “low,” but we set them correctly.  More importantly, we knew we might not like the kids’ club after all, so we had no expectation of “adult time.” And when we got to actually have it, it felt like a bonus.

Pools can be very relaxing!
   Still, we weren’t perfect and actually did have a tiny glitch in the expectation setting game.  5 years ago, at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen, we discovered a very unique margarita drink that was made neon green by the addition of the chaya plant.  Since the restaurant where we first found it closed, we couldn’t quite replicate the magic of that drink this time.  And once again, we succumbed to the disappointment of setting overly high expectations. If we only just expected regular margaritas, we would have been thrilled: they were objectively delicious! 
Chaya Margarita
Regular Margaritas
   The simple conclusion here is that you can trick yourself into satisfaction by sticking to the well-known mantra: “never overpromise and under-deliver.”  Attempt to follow it not only when you are promising something to others, but also when you are promising something to your future self.


Popular posts from this blog

How choices change behavior

Finally, a relaxing mini-vacation! Just Mike and I in Aruba – a place that holds many nostalgic memories for us, including one very special marriage proposal 14 years ago (can it be that long ago???). With all the tranquil beauty of the sea, the beach, the perfect sunsets, one naturally reflects on … optimality of choices? Yes, when the “one” is an economist.

      Here is a dilemma for you. Upon arrival at our hotel, the front desk clerk makes us an offer to upgrade to the club level.  The freebies include: continental breakfast, light lunch, hors d’oeurves and desserts in the evening, unlimited wine and top-shelf liquor throughout the day, and a daily spa “activity” which no one could explain to us. There is also some less exciting stuff like daily laundry and pressing, concierge service, and free internet (which is already free for all guests J). The cost at face value: $300 per day for the two of us (a “discount” from the normal rate of $400 per day).  What would you do?  Well, l…

Kicking the leadership gap

Standing in the fourth row of black belts at the 116thITF Taekwon-do International Instructor Course in New York, I witnessed a real-life representation of the gender leadership gap.  Women were well-represented in the ranks of 1st Degrees, showed up to a lesser extent among 2nd and 3rd Dans, could be seen here and there in my line of 4th Dans, but only one or two stood in the front three lines. I literally got goose bumps when a woman was promoted to Master (7th Degree), joining just one other female Master in the room. It made me want to ask them: How? What’s the secret? 
The decrease in female representation with seniority is not unique to martial arts, of course.  One of the best visualizations of the leadership gap in business appears here.  Similar trends had shown up in academia and in politics. The reasons for these gaps remind me of the reasons why there aren’t more female Taekwon-do Masters. History Taekwon-do (ITF) was founded by General Choi Hong Hi on April 11, 1955. Fo…

Sticking to the plan

Today marks 3 weeks since Mike and I “went off the deep end” – out of the blue, we decided to try “the keto diet.” In some ways, it’s just one among many fad diets, like paleo or 5:2. But, it also provides enough science (well, probably pseudo-science) to make sense to the skeptics like us. Neither of us has ever been on a strict diet before, as we truly are food-obsessed bon vivants.   Yet somehow, for some crazy reason, keto got us to stick to the plan.  Maybe it’s the meticulous record-keeping or the competition with oneself to stay within the allotted 20 grams of net carbs a day? These are certainly both features that appeal to our Type A personalities and therefore got us through the first oh-so-miserable few days.But I think that in the longer run it was something else.For me, it has to do with loss aversion – the very human trait that describes an individual’s desire to avoid losing. Loss aversion is associated with a related behavioral phenomenon known as the sunk cost bias. …