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The chasm between expectations and reality

Last weekend Ash and I travelled with our 8-month-old baby, Gray, for the first time since he was born. Ash and I both love to travel, and we've been fortunate enough to do a lot of it over the last 12 years together. Lockdown has naturally restricted our ability to travel over the last 13 months, but having a newborn meant that we probably wouldn't have considered it anyway.

As travel has started to open up and our bravery as new parents has increased, we recently decided that the time had now come for us to travel again, and that we should get out of town for 4 days. With our planning done and our bags packed, last Saturday we set forth on an adventure to a beautiful reserve on the edge of the Kruger. Getting there included two flights and a longish car ride - we left at 7am, and arrived at the reserve at 4pm.... shattered.

Gray is teething, so the poor guy screamed a fair amount on both flights. Yes, we were THOSE parents on the flight. With all of the extra luggage (three bags for him, one shared bag for us... as well as prams, cooler bags for his food, and more) we also managed to leave a bag on the first plane, and lose one entirely on the way back. I literally sprinted the full length of OR Thambo at least 4 times on the way there trying to recover our bag, and just made it onto our onward flight.

Life has been pretty intense lately, so Ash and I were both looking forward to some rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation on this holiday. Having not travelled with a kid before, we failed to realise just how disruptive it is for him when his routine and space changes so dramatically, and the reality of what he needs when our regular support structures are not there. Ash's parents joined us for the trip, and they were incredibly helpful and supportive throughout, but we wanted to make sure that they also had a great holiday, so we tried not to load them with caretaking responsibilities.

The net result is that, whilst we had an incredible trip, Ash and I both came back absolutely exhausted. We both thought we were signing up for some much needed downtime, only to realise that travelling with young children is the exact opposite.

This experience has got me thinking a lot about the chasm between expectations and reality.

For both Ash and me, our experience of holidays to date has generally been some adventure, with a lot of time for rest and relaxation in between. As a result, our expectation going into this holiday was that it would follow suite, and we would come back rejuvenated and relaxed. The reality is that kids change the game entirely, and we hadn't sufficiently wisened up before the holiday, and set our expectations accordingly.

I'm not sure where she heard it, or if it was an original gem of insight, but Amy Johnson said something to me a few years ago which really struck me:

“Most unhappiness is the chasm between expectation and reality.”

Bang on, Amy J.

Whether it's your annual holiday, your day-to-day experience at work, or the issues you and your partner are currently grappling with, most unhappiness stems from a mismatch between your expectations of a person/situation/event, and the reality of how it presents.

In response to this, it strikes me that we have a few options available to us to deal with the challenge:

1. We can work really hard to seek clarity and set our expectations in line with the likely reality

In the case of our recent holiday, we could have spoken to more parents who have travelled with infants, and gotten a reality check of what we were in for. If we needed a holiday with lots of down time, we probably would have chosen a different kind of experience. However, if we were looking for an adventure with lots of new experiences and growth, then this would have been the perfect holiday.

If the context for this discussion is a new employee joining a company, then we can spend a lot of time upfront making sure that the job description is clear, and that the "realities of the role" and the day-to-day experience of working at the company are made transparent to the potential employee. On that basis, they can make an informed/empowered decision about the opportunity.

If the context for this discussion is our intimate relationship, then we can have detailed conversations about what we expect from each other in terms of time, responsibilities, fidelity, social life and so on. If our actions match the explicit expectations that have been set, then we're likely to have a healthy and productive relationship. The more often we can have these expectations conversations, with ourselves and others, the more likely we are to be aligned and happy.

2. We can lessen our need for control, and "go with the flow" more readily

Whilst all of option one is incredibly helpful, the issue with this approach is that the future is not perfectly predictable, and no matter how much time you spend trying to gain clarity on the expectations in any sphere of your life, things are going to change, and things are going to happen which are outside of your control. Changes will be made at work, your partner will go through a midlife crisis, your best laid holiday plans will be interrupted when you miss a flight.

In response to this, our opportunity is to take a more accepting and fluid response into our day-to-day experience of life. To hold our expectations litely, and realise that our expectations are just our mind imagining a version of the future that may or may not materialise.

The more playful attitude is to engage openly with what presents in the moment, rather than holding desperately onto what we think we want, and the stories we've told ourselves and others to date.

These two options are not mutually exclusive, quite the opposite. Different circumstances will call for different responses from us, and the real opportunity here is to develop the capacity to embrace life with both of these tools in our toolbox.

These options represent two ends of a foundational spectrum in our lives - the spectrum between order and chaos. Too much order and life becomes rigid, clinical and suffocating. Too much chaos and life becomes destructive and wounding.

As with most things in life, the sweet spot exists in the dance between these two extremes. We owe it to ourselves and others to set and agree on expectations (to the degree that it's possible) whilst simultaneously realising that these expectations can only take us so far.

We can still beam with joy when it starts raining during our morning run without a raincoat


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