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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Saying Yes and No

Gender gaps in representation at senior levels in the workforce are widespread, especially in academia.One possible explanation is that women just find it harder to say “no” when asked to do extra ‘stuff’ that detracts from research and is undervalued at the time of promotion.Indeed, women tend to perform more service than male faculty. Studies show that women also on average spend more time on teaching-related activities and advising students, while men spend more time on research.A clever experiment reveals that women are twice as likely as men to volunteer for tasks that are deemed by all as undesirable yet benefit of the group as a whole (service and advising are commonly thought of in academia as examples of these so-called ‘non-promotable’ tasks).

It is true that a typical academic derives little to no pleasure from administrative work or from interacting with students. In fact, at many research-oriented institutions putting effort into teaching is discouraged.Once, when I was a …

Redefining success

I can hardly believe it: last week marked the 10-year anniversary of my becoming a faculty member at Wellesley College.Over the last decade, I’ve coached countless students through health crises, anxiety over recruiting for jobs, striking the right school-life balance, and struggling over seemingly impossible problem set questions.But no concern looms larger for Wellesley college students than their angst over grades.      Grade anxiety isn’t just a Wellesley thing, of course. Yet the extreme extent to which grades define student experience at Wellesley has always bothered me, and never more so than now. Only at Wellesley would a student show up in her professor’s office after an exam not to argue about her grade, but rather to apologize for disappointing the professor. Oftentimes that “bad” grade is a B+!  More importantly, it seems like this self-defined “bad” grade is viewed as more than just academic weakness. Students see it as a failure in life in general – a profoundly disturbin…

Facing the challenges of everyday life, Part 2

Fall of 2017: my closet is out of control.  Bursting at the seams with hardly ever-worn party dresses, jackets, and jumpsuits, it still manages to be completely devoid of options.  How is this possible, I muse, digging through the racks, laden with hangers, each carrying two or more items. Among the multitude of impulse buys and total duds, I locate that 15-year-old black jacket, two sizes too big and 20 dry cleans past its prime.  I wear it with a belt, and it looks ok.      Fast-forward one year: I no longer fall for impulse buys, and I almost never dry clean anything! Thank you, unlimited membership at Rent the Runway.   In a nutshell, I rent clothes, keep the four items I pick as long as I want to, and then return (no dry-cleaning required!).  As soon as the returns arrive back at the distribution center, I can pick my next items (conveniently "hearted" in the app).  First, this is a perfect mental replacement for shopping (hello, commitment device!).  I no longer go for …