The Consequences of High Expectations, Or, Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

My brother Jeff once introduced me to a rule about purchasing outdoor gear passed on to him by Matt Conroy of Green Mountain Rock Climbing, Rutland, VT.  It’s nice when outdoor gear can be affordable, durable, and light-weight.  Conroy’s Law, as we might call it, states that you can have two of these three, but you can’t have all three.  Jeff and I were applying Conroy’s Law to car-buying as well, speculating that in a vehicle, you can have two out of the three of the features of high gas mileage, a low purchase price, and a spacious interior, but you can’t have all three.

Basically, Conroy’s Law is an example of a trade-off.  Trade-offs are all around us.  There are only so many hours in a day and only so much money in our bank accounts, which means we must make choices, and choosing one thing means not choosing another.  Moreover, when we are making choices, we must balance the importance of the different features possessed by different options.  I will watch “House Hunters” when there’s nothing else on TV, and the young couple looking for a home is inevitably forced to weigh the relative importance of the good features of the houses they’ve seen.  Do they want the one with a better view or the one with more space?  The one with a nicer kitchen or the one with a lower price?

Despite the prevalence of trade-offs around us, we are often fed media messages that encourage us not to believe in trade-offs.  We are told we can have it all; indeed, we are sometimes even told that we deserve to have it all.  These sorts of messages raise our expectations so that even when advertising doesn’t encourage us to want it all, we do.  Forget having to choose two of three desirable features – we deserve to have all three!  This is another consequence of a culture that if focused on relentless progress and maximizing everything.

Yet Conroy’s Law persists, and we must still make trade-offs.  What happens when our rising expectations meet up against Conroy’s Law and other trade-offs?  One of a couple of things.  One positive consequence of increased expectations in our roles as consumers is that companies then work to meet them.  Outdoor gear now uses materials and technology that allows for outdoor gear that is overall better, lighter, and cheaper than was possible twenty years ago.

Yet there can be negative consequences to our increased expectations, too, especially if they become too greatly dissociated from reality.  If we expect more than the world can give us, we are liable to be disappointed and unhappy with the world.  That has negative consequences for both us and the world.  The negative consequence of unhappiness and dissatisfaction for us is perhaps obvious.  In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz examines the negative consequences inflation expectations can have on us.  It’s a good book and an easy read, and I’d recommend it.

Yet negative consequences for others may be just as significant.  If we expect to be able to have it all, and others are not able to meet those demands, then we may become angry with them, leading us to treat others unpleasantly for not meeting our over-inflated expectations.  How many of you have ever seen a demanding, entitled customer berating some poor sales clerk for not being able to deliver them the moon by the next morning?  Those who are interested in the level of civility and kindness in the world should therefore have an interest in keeping their expectations in line.  Even those whose ethic is less concerned about others should be able to recognize that although in one situation they may be the one doing the berating, in another they are likely to be the berated.

One simple solution to the problem of over-inflated expectations is to practice gratitude.  Rather than look at what you don’t have and be unhappy about it, look at what you do and be grateful for it.  While it is maybe possible to have more, it is certainly possible for us to have less.  We may not be able to have all three features we want, but two out of three isn’t bad, and we should appreciate that we’re not limited to one.  As Jeff pointed out to me, two out of three is still a winning percentage.  Next time you get two out of three things you want, remember to feel grateful for being a winner.

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