The Value of Realistic Expectations

“Managing our expectations is perhaps the most difficult challenge of choice, but one way to do so is to look to those who have shown how constraints create their own beauty and freedom.”
—Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing

This past weekend, I sat in my seat fuming.

As season ticket holders to our local professional soccer club, we’ve been through highs and lows in recent years. The most recent high was earning a spot in Major League Soccer. As far as the lows, well, those have can be summarized by our entire first season in the league.

Our last game was a rivalry match so the stadium was packed and the fanbase was ready to go. Our players, however, were not up for the moment. By halftime, our opponent’s lead was insurmountable and the match was already decided. At the break, I sat there in anger. My wife and daughter decided it was best to spend halftime out in the concourse away from me.

Interestingly, I knew this would happen. When we were given an expansion franchise, I told all my fellow fans that this season would be challenging. In any sport, expansion franchises struggle; we would have to endure a lot of losing in exchange for this golden opportunity. Yet even though I knew we’d lose, watching our team take yet another drubbing tested my theory.

When I discuss leadership issues, I try to emphasize the value of realistic expectations. Quite often, our initiatives fail not because they were unsuccessful, but because we didn’t provide sufficient space for them to grow. If you don’t begin a project by establishing attainable benchmarks, you will likely feel defeated even if you are not.

Personally, I saw this when we planted a church in the city fourteen years ago. We knew that our context was challenging and that our funding model would produce a smaller yield. Because we articulated this, we were able to persevere; the church is doing well today. In contrast, I remember dozens of other churches started near us at that same time; many of them no longer exist. By most metrics, they were doing well, even better than we were. But in nearly every incident, the leadership of these congregations were certain that they’d perform better than they actually did. Unable to deal with this reality, they surrendered and closed up shop.

Look, I’m all for creating BHAG’s to inspire us to expand our dreams. But when you’re trying something new, be realistic. Ultimately, our ability to do so will determine our success.

As a marathoner, people come to me about running advice all the time. I’m often surprised when someone who hasn’t run in years asks me about running 26.2 miles. I try to recalibrate the conversation, and encourage them to first look at a couch-to-5K program. Sure, it’s not a massive goal for some, but it can be part of a process.The adage says you have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk. Yet in an era of instant results, we’re losing sight of what it means to be realistic.

By the end of halftime, I had calmed down. I was still frustrated, but I remembered what I told so many others about our soccer team’s success. By framing my expectations realistically, I’m trying to enjoy this difficult part of the process.

If we’re still a losing club in a few years, I’ll come back, delete this post, and question my reasoning.