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Updated: Apr 13, 2019

by Greg Lewin

There is a case to be made that you are the sum of your experiences, memories and relationships. But perhaps there is a better case to be made that you are your perceptions of your experiences, memories and relationships, and the difference is far from inconsequential. We have all kinds of processing biases that color and shape our actual experiences and the memories we create of these experiences. The experience and memory of a beautiful hike can be completely hijacked by a painful or embarrassing fall that happens feet from your car. A great meal with friends can be overwhelmed by an argument over the check. We don’t remember experiences as the accumulation of discrete, equally weighted moments. Rather we overweight things with high emotional density or those things that happen most recently. Our perceptions of experience are far different from the perceptions of those with whom we share our experiences. And if we could identify some hypothetically dispassionate observer to record the entirety of the reality we experience, the record would be overflowing with details that never crossed any of our minds. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” We harbor the misguided notion that other people see things as we do. Therefore, we expect them to respond in a manner similarly as we would. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is subjective and knowing that changes everything.

Perception is the lens through which we understand the world. Our learned concepts prime us to organize and interpret information in our individual ways. Perception is a decidedly active, not passive, process. We don’t observe or experience our realities we build them. We build them from our past experiences, education, cultural values, social norms and organizational influences. And from these unique backgrounds we shape our realities. When we have ideas or preferences, we like to find evidence in support of them. Nothing could be more obvious in the current political climate. We don’t seek truth. We don’t challenge our preconceptions. We confirm our biases and entrench our beliefs. When we are uncertain about someone or something, we quickly rifle through our personal catalogs of stereotypes and formulas to resolve our sense of discomfort. We jump to conclusions as a matter of convenience and personal comfort that gives us the impression that we are in control when in fact nothing can be further from the truth.

One of the great things about science is that science is not about certainty. Science is about coming up with our best understanding of the reality we know today. But the real strength of science is that through peer review and publication this version of reality is exposed to as much criticism as possible so that new minds and new thoughts may take our current understandings to new, deeper and richer places in the future. Science gains credibility not because what was considered right may someday be proven wrong, but because scientists welcome and embrace uncertainty in search of new truths.

Unfortunately we are a bit different. We rely on our very narrow range of personal experiences to build the perceptions of reality that we use to make the decisions that change our lives. It was the great French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre who said, “We are our choices.” He could also have said we are the perceptions of our realities that shape the choices we make.

If we are our choices, then we are about what happens next in our lives because choice is resolved in the future. And make no mistake we are all obsessed with what happens next. If you wish to challenge that assumption, simply try to meditate — hard to do in the best of circumstances, virtually impossible to do amid the chaos of daily life and experience. Our minds are in a continuous state of motion trying to reconcile a world that is constantly changing, and our need to predict those changes. We are in a constant search for certainty. And the way we measure, monitor and organize our predictions is by building expectations.

Expectations are the tool we use to navigate our way forward. It is our expectations that guide our perceptions of what happens next. Research has shown that people rapidly perceive what they expect to perceive and slowly perceive that which is unexpected. Stated somewhat differently, it requires more clear and convincing information or proof to recognize the unexpected than the expected. The expectations we bring to perception are what we commonly refer to as a mindset. Mindsets are neither good nor bad, they are simply unavoidable. They help us process complex information and circumstances quickly when speed is required and they help us ease the energy drain of constant thinking when doing rather mundane tasks. But they also limit us and lead us to less than accurate observations and conclusions.

Consider the famous invisible gorilla experiment. Six people standing on a stage, three in black shirts, three in white shirts, pass two basketballs back and forth. Audience members are tasked with counting the number of passes made by people in white shirts. At some point a person in a gorilla costume strolls on stage, stands in the middle of the action, thumps his chest and then strolls off. The gorilla is on stage for nine seconds and fifty percent of the audience members failed to see the gorilla. There are many ways to characterize the results. In my opinion, if the audience is not primed to see the gorilla, if they don’t expect to see a gorilla, if a gorilla does not fit into the narrative, they simply fail to see the gorilla. We see what we expect to see. When a magician tosses a ball in the air several times and then on the last toss makes it disappear, the illusion relies on misdirecting the audience’s expectations so they anticipate his throwing the ball in the air again when in fact the magician has deftly dropped the ball in his lap before executing the last throw.

It is our expectations that seed our perceptions. And it is our perceptions of observations and circumstances that inform our choices that then inform our understanding of ourselves. To a large degree we are a product of our expectations. But even this definition is a bit more complicated then it first appears because many of the expectations we consciously and subconsciously choose to accept are not of our own making.

In the broadest sense, our expectations evolve from two places: our life experiences and memories, and the life experiences and memories of those with whom we share our lives. You see, there are two big evolutionary urges we all are compelled to chase. First is survival and tied for first is the need and desire to share our lives with others. Obviously they are one in the same. Strong alliances are paramount to both surviving and thriving in the complex world we live in. And so these primal urges compel us to fend for ourselves as well as join with others to make fending for ourselves so much more likely to succeed. This then begs the question, if expectations are such an important force intrinsic to our human nature, then wouldn’t it be logical that they would be central to guiding both our self interests as well as those behaviors that support the groups we choose to join and that promote our place in those groups?

In fact, that is exactly how expectations work. There is a large part of expectations that are built from the inside out and perhaps an even larger part of the expectations we would claim to be our own that are built from the outside in. Many of the expectations we acquire come from the groups we wish to join. If you would like to join a church it might be useful to believe in God and be interested in charitable work. If you wish to join the democratic party it might be useful to believe in government led programs just as a republican may be best served by pledging allegiance to lower taxes. These are beliefs the groups accept and if we wish to join with them it would be helpful if we became aware of these expectations and then adopted them as our own. It is important that we fit in and if we wish to fit in we must be what others expect us to be. We are, or try to be, who we think others want us to be. This is central to our human nature. Our behavior and responses, psychologically and to a certain degree biologically, adapt to accommodate the expectations of others.

We do all kinds of stuff to fit in. The way we speak, the way we dress, our posture, our reactions, the things we buy, the communities we live in and the organizations we join are the obvious stuff we do because we believe that is what others expect us to do. We are constantly assessing the expectations of others in order to make joining the tribe easy to do. In the old days, getting expelled from the group was tantamount to a death sentence. Now that death sentence is more akin to death by one thousand cuts. We don’t get invited to parties and we find it harder to make the connections needed to advance at work. We are on the outside looking in and the pressure mounts. But of course this is not now. This is the now of yesterday. Now connection is not just a physical reality, now connection is a virtual reality.

The groups we need to connect with are larger and more dynamic. And the tools we have long used to interpret the intentions of others and read what is expected of us have become in some very important ways marginalized and diminished by the technology intermediaries we rely upon. Our senses of touch and smell are off the table and the subtle facial messages that are so revealing of deeper understanding are virtually impossible to detect. And what becomes of body language and proximity? It is getting harder to know what others expect and it is getting harder to know what we expect of ourselves. It is all too clear why global health organizations have declared loneliness and isolation to be a global health crises with health consequences exceeding those of more traditional forms of risk such as smoking, obesity and many forms of disease.

Increasingly, the answer to the question “Who are we?” seems to be “lost.” Although I have pivoted to a somewhat pessimistic place, a more dispassionate perspective could actually return us to a more optimistic observation. I don’t believe that the subject of expectations has gotten remotely the amount of attention that it deserves. On a practical basis how many of us actually look to our expectations for answers when we are suffering pain, sadness and anxiety? But this neglect can be a great source of advantage. Imagine you are Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in the world. I would suspect that the amount of effort required to shave one one-hundredth of a second off his time demands endless amounts of practice, discipline and effort. Now imagine you have never swum a single lap. The first time you go across the pool is both exhausting and exhilarating. Now think about how little practice it would require to improve your time from 30 or 40 seconds to 25 or 35 seconds. The effort would be pretty modest and the returns astronomical. Well that is the way I see investing our time to change our expectations. It’s a pretty open field in which few of us have invested much energy.

Expectations are a new area for personal growth and exploration. Expectations offer us a fairly clear roadmap for so much that ails us. If you are feeling sad, disappointed, angry, fearful, anxious, stressed out or depressed, rather than walk a random path of “why did I make this or that choice?” why not simply ask yourself two very simple questions: What was it that I was expecting? And when you can answer that question further inquire: Why was I expecting that? Perhaps pressing these two direct avenues of inquiry can get us much closer to answers that we have long been in search of. I recommend you pursue these questions much the way a child ceaselessly asks why. And when you have learned to be truly vulnerable and truly relentless in your quest you may surprisingly find yourself far closer to the truth of who you are and what you really desire.

To do this we need to develop an awareness of when expectations are in play so that we may grant ourselves the ability to pause and consider our two questions. There are three clues we all can avail ourselves of to identify these moments and catalyze change:

First, expectations come with a very specific set of language that we all repeat in our heads as we are plotting our way forward. Think of all the words that we use to represent our expectations, I BET if that company reports good earnings the stock will go up, I ASSUME if I introduce myself to her she would be willing to have a drink, I PREDICT, I HOPE, I THINK. The list goes on. We each have our own set of words we use when we are using expectations. Becoming aware of this language can help alert you to expectations that may need to be questioned when things are not going your way.

Second, expectations are generally present when we are dealing with personal matters of meaning and consequence. I never go to the grocery store expecting the fruit to be fresh. I just don’t care. But if I am dealing with politics, finance or relationships, you can bet I am invested in expectations. If you care then you need to be aware.

Third, if you are feeling emotional intensity, then you know expectations are in play. Are you sad because something sad happened or are you sad because something unexpectedly sad happened? If you walk across the room at a party to introduce yourself to a girl whom you expect will not be welcoming, are you sad when your advance fails to attract her attention? Probably not. However, if you expect her to welcome you and she turns away, then your emotions will be on full display. Do you get angry at the traffic light when it takes too long to turn green or do you get angry when it takes longer than you expected? Are you happy if you got an 85% on an exam if you expected 100%? Our emotions are in large part a reflection of our expectations. When you feel your emotions elevate, know that your expectations are fully engaged in the narrative.

All these clues will work to help you become recognize when expectations are in play but none will be of use if you don’t develop an ability to be self-aware. Self-awareness is a big project. In fact few of us are truly self-aware. And in our modern technology driven lives, self-awareness is under a multi-billion dollar attack. There was research produced by Microsoft Canada in 2015 that looked at 2000 participants of all ages from the years 2000 to 2013 that concluded that our average attention span had declined from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. They then pointed out, for dramatic effect, that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. I don’t know much about goldfish and I can’t imagine how you would measure their attention spans, but I do know that since the advent of smartphones, social networks and social media marketing, our fragile attention spans are under a very deliberate, relentless and sophisticated assault. And I know this to be unequivocally true because I follow the money. Those in the fields of marketing, advertising and PR focus a lot of money and effort in capturing your attention in less than 6 seconds.

So if our attention spans are fast converging on zero, how is it possible to be self-aware? Because the currency of awareness is focus and attention and apparently we are falling behind fish and possibly insects by that measure. If we are going to try and be more self-aware, we will need to push back on what everyone is trying to sell us.

One of the ways marketers are trying to capture our feeble attention spans is by capitalizing on the smartphones that we have all become so wed to. And those devices have become extremely effective at capturing attention. On the surface it is really quite simple. Our brains are trained to reward novelty and so each time we hear or feel a buzz, beep or distinctive ringtone we become a bit like one of Pavlov’s dogs and jump to find out what we are missing. They prey on our addiction. And that is exactly what it is, an addiction.

We are all under the illusion that we are great multitaskers. Unfortunately the science is clear, we are not. Our brains don’t multitask, they single task, switching back and forth, one task at a time. When we commit to multitasking the only thing that increases is our error rates and the time it takes to finish our projects. With smartphones permanently embedded in our pockets and even occupying the space on our nightstands as we sleep, the conduit for digital distraction has now become a new, evolved part of our human anatomy. So if we wish to once again leave the goldfish in the rearview mirror and regain the focus and attention span we need to become self-aware and self-directed human beings, we will need to turn off our phones for manageable periods of time and commit to doing just one thing at a time for awhile and see how that makes us feel. The choice is simple the challenge is hard.

Try to designate regular periods of time for doing one thing, being self-aware. If you walk to work, just walk. If you drive to work, just drive, don’t talk on the phone, don’t listen to music, just drive. Give yourself the chance to do one thing and one thing only. And in these moments begin to become aware of the things that cross your mind. Don’t process — observe. Begin to learn what it is like to simply observe your thoughts. You are not there to solve — you are there to observe. And after observing your mind for a period of time, begin to turn your attention to your body. If you are walking, learn to feel the air on your skin, the pressure on your feet, your posture, pace and breathing. This process is not meaningless. In fact it is the very opposite of meaningless. Your body and mind are finely tuned systems geared to alert you to important changes going on inside. It is these senses and sensations that can help you know when your temperature is starting to rise because you are angry or fearful. In other words, it is these senses that can help you become self-aware of the influence of expectations. And as we all know, if we can catch our emotions and reactions early we have a far better chance to mitigate their effects and subsequently make better decisions on our behalf.

If we want to be more satisfied with our lives, we need to understand and curate the expectations that define our lives. And if we wish to identify those expectations and then make choices that can lead to better outcomes, we need to be more self-aware. And if we want to be more self-aware, we need to put down the phones and do one thing at a time. And if we can do all that we place ourselves in position to know who we really are and lead more satisfying lives.

by Greg Lewin


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