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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.


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