By Kevin J. Moriarity I was a consultant and project manager in the software business. Part of the training, and subsequent practice, was in risk management. I was trained to anticipate all the things that could go wrong and develop contingency plans ahead of time in case they occurred. What I learned after two decades of work was how often the things that could go wrong actually did. I learned that optimists were often wrong – Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) was alive and well!
Overcome optimism? Yes. Excessive, unrealistic optimism is bad for both individuals and our society. Climate change? Don’t worry, be happy. Borrow more money. Housing prices always go up. What can go wrong?
I believe expectations are key factors related to our happiness or unhappiness. Unrealistic expectations, driven by a multi-billion dollar positive thinking industry and the advertising business, have created an environment of perpetual dissatisfaction.
Consider the following scenario.
My wife and I are going on vacation. Our respective expectations regarding the process of getting to our vacation destination could not be more opposed.
She has the more typical American expectation. She expects, demands, that everything go smoothly. She expects no traffic delays, no long security lines, and that the plane will leave on time. If everyone is behaving and just does their job correctly, as they should, all will be well. Her rosy outlook is reflected in her desire to leave for the airport quite a bit later than I.
I, on the other hand, characterized as the “voice of doom and gloom,” believe traffic will be delayed on the way to the airport, the security lines will be outrageously long, and the plane will not leave on time. My view is frowned upon in America. I am a negative thinker and that is thought of as wrong. Many people think my way of thinking is a malady that needs to be cured.
Let’s consider two possible outcomes.
First, everything goes bad. Traffic on the way to the airport is a nightmare. We arrive at the security line with less than an hour until boarding. The security line is insanely long and moving at a snail’s pace. We get to the gate with minutes to spare, only to discover our flight is delayed due to some vague mechanical issue.
My wife is in a foul mood. Nothing met her expectations. Nothing went the way it was supposed to. Her vacation is off to a rough start. I, on the other hand, while not overjoyed about events, feel it’s just par for the course. All my expectations have been met. While I dare not utter it, I have the satisfaction of an “I told you so” running in my mind.
Second, let’s assume everything goes perfectly. There is no traffic to speak of. We arrive at security with plenty of time to spare, only to find there are no lines and we’re at the gate with more than an hour to kill. The plane is not delayed, in fact boarding goes so smoothly we actually leave a few minutes early (it happens).
My wife is in a great mood. Her vacation is off to a good start. Now she has the “I told you so” feeling coursing through her. While my prognostication was wrong, I am quite happy. Reality has wildly exceeded my expectations. My vacation is off to a great start.
In my opinion the more realistic expectation is the most advantageous. Acknowledging Murphy’s Law allows you to feel better no matter the outcome. If all goes wrong, you’ve prepared for it (you left way too early according to the unrealistic – otherwise known as optimists) and reality met your expectations. The downside of reality has been minimized to the best of your ability. If, on the other hand, anything, or everything, goes right, your expectations have been exceeded – and that makes you happier than merely having expectations met.
The realist will have the downside minimized and either expectations met, or expectations exceeded. The unrealistic will either be miserable because expectations have not been met, or at best, will have expectations met.
Which do you think is better?