Prior to the start of his most recent Little League season, I asked my 11-year old son about his goals. “I want to make the All-Star Team,” he offered boldly. He had never hit made an All-Star Team and even though he had been working hard, I knew the odds were stacked against him. So, I told him I thought the All-Star Team was a spectacular goal. Then, I immediately started to manage his expectations. I pointed out all the reasons why the goal was lofty: He was going to be on the younger side, playing against better players, with faster pitching. If nothing else, I told him, he would learn, improve and next year would be his year. The effort would be worth the reward, I said.
Then the kid proceeded to have the year of his life, batted leadoff most of the season, hit a few home runs and, yes, made the All-Star team. In the fourth game, he hit a Grand Slam to help his team win its game. As I watched him circle the bases, a couple of tears slowly rolled down my cheeks. I realized that I’ve been managing expectations for so long that I’ve forgotten how to dream big. The tears were as much about the excitement I felt for him as they were about sadness I felt for me.
Early in my career I learned the phrase, “Under promise and over deliver.” It was hammered into my head. It was a battle cry and a way of doing business. We’ve all heard this concept. The premise is that by promising less than we know we can deliver, we manage the expectations. This, of course, allows us to shock the world with results far beyond what anyone thought possible! Our clients (coworkers, friends, family, whomever) will be so thrilled that they will shower us with praise and additional work. (Or at least the latter in the case of the clients.) And because of that . . . we’ll be better people! (Kidding. Sort of.)
But I’ve found that managing expectations for too long has started to limit my capabilities. It has started to stunt my imagination. It has become such an ingrained habit that I’ve forgotten what’s out there beyond possible . . . as I focus primarily only on what’s in my immediate, tangible view. I have forgotten that it’s possible to make the All-Star Team if that’s what we really want. T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only those willing to risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Closer to home, my friend posted the picture (above) of herself holding the card that reads, “Dream big live bigger.” (Kudos to my kid for doing both.)
As I think more about this, it seems we are trained to manage expectations to 1) Give ourselves the opportunity to look good, and 2) minimize disappointment. Neither of those reasons feels tremendously rewarding. The truth is I’d much rather fail while searching outside of possible than succeed while playing it safe (whatever “fail” and “succeed” mean). Or as the meme goes, “Reward is sweetened by risk.” We may succeed playing it safe, but what might have happened if we (*gasp*) didn’t start with managed expectations and just pushed all the chips to the center of the table? What might have been possible?
Someone recently asked me what I do for a living. And I choked. I made light of A Day Well Lived as “an apparel company” (it’s SO not an apparel company). At the time, I didn’t know why I said that. It was just easier to describe it that way. With more thought, I understand that I was managing my own expectations. I was afraid the person who asked wouldn’t get it and then I’d feel dumb. Because that’s really where managed expectations truly live. In fear.
No more than a day or two later, I was asked again. This time, I laid out the entire vision as though I were pitching an investor. I nailed it. I felt empowered. And then my friend laughed and said, “ Oh is that all?” He didn’t have bad intentions. But just as I was about to shrink away and make a joke that minimized what I had just said, I visualized my son running the bases, oblivious to any expectations, managed or otherwise.
“No,” I said. “It’s even bigger than all of that. I’m done dreaming small.” Someday the kid will understand the importance of his making the All Star Team. Not so much for him. But for me.