The Surprising Power of Low Expectations

Parents are supposed to be a reliable source of timeless wisdom. So, you can imagine my surprise when my mom said this:

“The key to happiness is low expectations.”


Starting in Kindergarten, we’re taught to “aim high and “reach for the stars.” Now you’re telling me to “aim low”? It didn’t make sense. So, like all children, I promptly ignored my mother’s advice and proceeded to do the opposite.

It wasn’t until years later, that I discovered science agrees with my mom.

In The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, he identifies two buckets of people: “satisficers” and “maximizers.”

  • Satisficers are people with low expectations. They’re the ones who make a choice and think, “Yea, that’s good enough”, and move on with their day.
  • Maximizers are people with high expectations. They’re the ones who think long and hard about their decisions in order to make THE BEST decision.

If you’re anything like me, you assumed maximizers are awesome and the winners at life – and like me, you’re 100 percent wrong.

Satisficers are happier in the long run. 

Why Setting Low Expectations Is Better

Turns out, in their pursuit of “the best,” Maximizers are always disappointed. They second-guess themselves and never feel certain that they made the right decision. They’re paralyzed with “what if’s.”

Maximizers set the bar so high, they cannot reach it. 

In life, you’re rarely going to make the best (or right) choice every single time. You have incomplete information, insufficient time, and all sorts of other distractions.

When you level set your expectations, you’re far better equipped to survive the bumps along the way, instead of being derailed by them.

As you pursue any level of success, there are certain uncomfortable inevitabilities you can expect. Here are three inevitable things you can anticipate as you pursue a purpose-driven life that makes positive change in the world:

Expectation #1: You’re going to look stupid.  

Have you ever seen a one-year-old learn how to walk? They fall. Every. Single. Time.

This kid.

There’s not a baby in the course of human history who got it right the first time. The more success you achieve in your life, the more firsts you will have (especially public firsts). And you will be terrible at them.

Every first draft of an article is bad. And that’s fine. If you expect your first draft of anything to be great, you’re setting yourself up for profound disappointment.

This article you’re reading is draft six. That’s how editing works. It’s iterative.

There’s a great quote from the founder of LinkedIn:

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”


Don’t expect to be perfect at the things you’re new at – expect to look silly. Heck, expect to be bad at it. Set low expectations. When you do, it takes the pressure off so you can get good at it.

Expectation #2: Not everyone is going to like you.

When I first started collecting email addresses on my website, I took every unsubscribe personally. I knew it wasn’t personal. But it felt personal.

The thought that someone didn’t like my work, and therefore didn’t want to hear from me anymore, was hard to be objective about.

When you measure your success by other people’s reaction, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

It wasn’t until I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak at a conference about “the courage to withstand naysayers” that my experience with being disliked changed. He said he was reading Keith Richards’ biography, and laughed out loud that Richards’ was being called “revolutionary.”

Not because Richards didn’t have an enormous influence on the music, but because of this:

“A truly revolutionary act does not result in women around the world wanting to sleep with you…when you truly are a revolutionary, the world looks at you and says, ‘You’re a weirdo!’”

Phew. I’m great at being a weirdo.

Instead of seeing being disliked as a loss, what if it became your new benchmark of success? The more people who judge you as “not my cup of tea,” the better.

Expectation #3: You’re going to be misquoted, misunderstood, and misrepresented

The first time a friend misconstrued something I wrote, I was distraught.

“That’s not what I meant! THIS is what I meant!”

I felt an instant urge to defend my honor. People have to know! I’m not that person you think I am! But it was futile.

You cannot control how your work is received. You can only control what you put out.

And when you put things out, they’re liable to be misquoted, misunderstood, and misrepresented. Success, doing something meaningful, and making change in the world requires taking a stand. If you take a stand, you risk being misunderstood, misquoted, and misrepresented.

Seth Godin puts a nice re-frame on this topic in his TED talk on Tribes:

Who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo.”


Expectations In The Arena

When you go into The Arena with high expectations – expecting to be perfect and instantly successful – you set yourself up for failure. It helps if you know what you’re getting into when you set out, so you’re not derailed by disappointment.

Difficult, unpleasant, and embarrassing things will happen. They are inevitable. Better to go in eyes-open, prepared to face the discomfort. Set low expectations.

The first blog post you write will be bad. The first public talk you give will be hard. The first proposal you write for your clients will be wrong.

  • Expect that it will take a while to get where you want to go
  • Expect that some people won’t like you
  • Expect that you’ll be misquoted
  • Expect that you’ll be ignored…A LOT

Level set your expectations off the bat.

Once you’re armed with these revised expectations, it’s a lot easier to face success….and all the uncomfortable things that come with it. Setting low expectations can in fact, be really surprising.

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