Managing Our Expectations

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Feb 05, 2011

"Life...It tends to respond to our outlook, to shape itself to meet our expectations."
Richard M. DeVos

Years ago I read a story about a young woman who joined the Peace Corps. Her assignment was to serve in a remote South American jungle village where the living conditions would be quite primitive. She prepared for the worst. 

When she arrived she was surprised to discover that her hosts had built a temporary shower for her. nd though the water was cold, it flowed into an old vegetable can with holes punched in the bottom. Her joy knew no bounds. 

After her mission ended and before returning home to the USA, she planned to spend her final weekend in a beautiful hotel in the capital city for some rest and relaxation. As her time in the bush came to a close, she found herself anxiously counting the days for her wonderful weekend. 

When she checked in to the hotel she was informed that the night before she arrived the entire hot water system broke down and there was no way it could be fixed until the first of the week. And she was leaving on Monday. That malfunction ruined her entire weekend. 

After she returned home she pondered why she reacted so differently. She concluded that it all had to do with her expectations. In the jungle she expected so little, but when something small was given her, it produced great benefit. In the hotel, however, she expected so much, but when something small was taken from her, it produced for her enormous frustration. 

At a recent conference I met Dr. Inno Onwueme, a specialist in the development of agricultural solutions for needy places of the world. At one such place where poverty was rampant with the evidence everywhere and he was suggesting ways to improve the local way of life, a gentleman asked him this simple question, "Why? Why would we want to change our way of life?" 

As an outsider, this at first seemed odd to Dr. Onwueme but as he heard more, he realized the people he was trying to help because they lacked many benefits of modernity, they did not feel they were in need because they were already content. 

I was reminded of this challenge to manage our expectations when I listened to some of the reflections from a few of the nearly 4,500 people on the 952-foot Carnival Splendor Cruise ship disabled by a fire in the engine room. 

All of those passengers had planned for the best. For some it was their first cruise and for years they had saved their money for this "trip of a life-time." For others, they had lots of experience cruising and this was just one more vacation on the high seas. For all of them, they boarded the ship with high expectations. 

But when the fire broke out in the engine room and the ship became disabled, everyone's high expectations plunged to an extreme low. Plumbing broke down. Air conditioning quit. Elevators did not work. And the food, one of the reasons people take cruises, spoiled. 

One of the passengers, David Zambrano said, "Mealtime requires a two-hour wait for cold food. It's almost like a diet cruise because we've been eating salads and fruit and small sandwiches." 

As I read his comments I thought of the times in my life when food like that was normal. I also thought of the many people in the world who would long for a meal like that once a week or even once a month. But I guess when you compare that to cruise-line expectations, even good food seems bad. 

Even though the cruise-line apologized and gave each passenger a full refund and an additional free cruise, for many, nothing could assuage their profound disappointment which was based on such high expectations. 

Maybe that's why William Howard Stern said, "Keep high aspirations, low expectations, and small needs." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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