How to Beat Expectations

Choose Intention over Expectation to Live the Life of Your Dreams

We recently took a mini-safari in Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park, famous for its high concentration of elephants, peacocks and exotic water birds, and while we were sitting around the breakfast table of our small guesthouse one morning, our enthusiastic and charming host, Upul, moved us with the story of his humble entrepreneurial beginnings. Impressed by his passion and resolve, I asked how he first envisioned the charming boutique property, which was lushly landscaped and designed with details in mind, and he responded that he never really had any expectations for what it might be but that he only knew its success would allow him to fulfill a lifelong goal to travel beyond his island home. You see, when Upul was in his 20s, he decided to take a less traditional path (at least for Sri Lankans) and postpone marriage in order to earn and save money to eventually see the world. With $200 in his pocket, Upul opened a small tea shop and grocery in town, eventually squirreling away enough funds to buy a Jeep that he continues to use to escort visitors on tours of the protected parklands nearby. Another couple of years went by, and he was again able to expand his fledgling business empire, this time constructing the small hotel complex that now includes three thatched-roof bungalows, an indoor/outdoor kitchen and dining area for guests, and a cabin for himself.  

Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka; December 2017.

Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka; December 2017.

Now in his mid-30s, Upul is still saving for his big trip abroad (tentatively scheduled for May), but nearly two years after opening the hotel, he is totally debt free and in many ways, has managed to bring the world to his doorstep as he nightly hosts guests from far-flung places across the globe. What struck me about our host’s story was that he never expected to become a hotelier, a guide or even a grocer, but he understood his trades as a means to an end, a way to have a freer life and to fulfill an intention to, in his own words, “open his mind.”

Choosing Intention over Expectation

How often have we been burned by expectations, letting them get in the way of enjoying what has been provided to us? I have certainly been guilty of this as Martin and I have traveled the world during this past year. Before arriving to a new destination, I sometimes made the mistake of conjuring up a picture in my mind of where we’d stay, what we’d see and do, and the food we’d eat, only to have the actual scenario be totally different. Because of my attachment to the expectations I created, I would then become frustrated, disappointed, or miss the experience altogether because my vision didn’t match reality. And this in no way meant that the situation was bad or that the circumstances were somehow less than my imaginings but only that my mind wasn’t capable of comprehending the uniqueness (and sometimes uncomfortableness) of something new. If, at other times before arriving to a new locale, I formed a specific and meaningful intention—to become reacquainted with myself, to heal, or like our host Upul, to “open my mind”—, the outcome often surpassed anything I could have ever imagined.

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro; August 2017.

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro; August 2017.

So, what’s the difference? Today, intention and expectation are often used interchangeably, but I believe that understanding the nuance between the two could end up changing the way we think and perhaps, even the course of our entire lives.

Intention can be traced back to Old French (circa 1300s), meaning “stretching, intensity, will, thought,” while expectation comes about a bit later in 16th century Middle French, denoting “an anticipation” or “an awaiting.” If we go even further, their prefixes are opposite with in-/en- coming from “in; into; within” and ex- meaning “out of” or “from.” In other words, intention is more active thinking, drawn from the internal, while expectation passively relies on external forces. Intention comes with responsibility and personal ownership, whereas expectation often relies on the behavior and actions of others, the environment around us or the body and mind, which in reality are only borrowed by our higher selves.  

In many cases, expectation is used in an attempt to control always-changing and transitional experiences throughout our lives. As we anticipate new situations, navigate unfamiliar settings, or dream about the future, we humans are only able to draw upon previous experiences, behaviors, or perceptions. When we create expectations—big or small—, we are then saddled with our own limited past, which can cause us to undervalue the potential we all have. This constant comparing between the fiction of what’s in our heads and the truth of reality is what inevitably leads to disappointment, unhappiness or feeling unfulfilled. However, if we choose instead to set intention before we take any action, we are forced to step back and evaluate the bigger picture, often by asking ourselves the very simple—but powerfully deep—question, Why? To properly answer, we must look inside ourselves, contemplate what we hope to achieve and open ourselves up to all possible routes for getting there. By setting intention, we mindfully create purpose, hope, and a path for the universe to work its magic, which like our friend Upul’s route, might not necessarily look like something we could have ever envisioned.   

How to Set Intention

With 2018 just around the corner, many of us will create lists of resolutions, goals and dreams for the year ahead, but sometimes, these important and well-meaning declarations and commitments tend to be by-products of a deeper intention that we might have overlooked. For example, a typical list might include a resolution to "lose weight," but in reality, this is just a result—or expectation—of what we might hope to accomplish in the new year. In an effort to feel in control, we jumped too quickly to the end goal and ignored the intention altogether. If we were to step back and ask ourselves why we want to lose the weight, we could start to find the path to our true intent. If the answer is, “to look better,” then we should again ask, why? The reply might be, “to feel more confident.” As we work through the layers that surround our true aim, we will eventually reach our "ah-ha moment" or the motivation for, in this case, losing weight. With this answer in mind, perhaps the resolution should instead become an intention “to live the upcoming year with confidence,” allowing the universe the space to devise the best course of action for us.

Annapurna Circuit, Himalayas, Nepal; October 2017.

Annapurna Circuit, Himalayas, Nepal; October 2017.

As we move toward choosing intentions over expectations for the year ahead (or even within our day-to-day lives), we must remember to stay open to receiving whatever is presented. The path of intention will likely be teaching, healing and even uncomfortable at times but is sure to propel us forward and bring about real growth, fulfillment and joy. I find it helps to regularly recall our intention(s) through daily meditation, prayer, journaling or mantras so that we can more easily recognize and give thanks for what is unfolding in our life.

In the end, expectations will only limit us to what we perceive is possible, while intentions will open us to the possibility of what we can’t even imagine. As we enter 2018, let’s all keep asking ourselves why and ‘stretch’ into what’s beyond even our own wildest dreams.