It feels trite to say that expectation is a classic “double-edged sword”, but it is. People are often moved to action specifically by expectation and nothing else. Some sort of abstracted promise or reward can push people to take initiative in a way that they otherwise might not. Everyone develops a relationship to expectation. People who are driven and want to achieve X or Y rely heavily on convincing themselves to act through expectation.
Some of this is obviously cultural. Most of the things humans want to achieve, especially nowadays, are from a utilitarian point of view entirely unnecessary. Buying a nicer stereo system when stereo systems used to not exist, buying a nicer house when you already have a nice house, trying to trade-up spouses as if they’re baseball cards— people often act in this way. It’s not uncommon.
The answer to this conundrum seems reductive (and it is, like all quote-unquote ‘answers’) but it does explain part of the problem. When we psychologically associate expectation and achievement, we make it impossible for the bar to reach any sort of ceiling. The ladder of potential satisfaction goes higher and higher and higher until the sun burns you. The overdose metaphor always seems to apply to the basic tenets of desire, which is why drugs serve as such potent cultural and literary metaphors. We are all addicted to little successes and triumphs.
If a human being wants to achieve something, they set expectations for themselves. The desire in and of itself creates an extra layer of expectation— what they will feel and how life will be better after they achieve whatever it is they are trying to achieve. Expectations are mankind’s artificiality trying to superimpose itself on nature. Self-conscious thought doesn’t change the way the natural world works, and nature does not give a damn if you accomplish something. Even if tomorrow you were to achieve your lifetime achievement, you would probably feel dissatisfied shortly thereafter. As the Zen saying goes, “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.”
The way towards moderation of expectation is through doing things for their own sake. Instead of playing sports to become good at them, just shoot the ball. Instead of trying to become Django Reinhardt, just play guitar. Mindfulness is the art of “just doing”. The problem with expectation is that it adds a layer of unnecessary complication to doing, a layer that is potentially self-defeating. If you do a thing with an expectation, and it doesn’t live up to your desire (as so often is the case) you experience fear, failure, detachment and laziness.
The reason people are lazy is simultaneously the reason they are ambitious— they associate action with expectation. If they don’t act, they don’t expect, and thus don’t suffer. If they do act, they expect, and often do suffer. Projecting idealizations onto an uncaring and inhuman world doesn’t make good things more likely to happen. It often just causes you trouble.
For this reason, expectations are the simplest and most common of delusions. They are human beings betting present contentment on a future promise that, by nature, cannot be wholly fulfilled. This is the sad side-effect of what sets us apart from other species; self-consciousness makes us think we can project our desires onto nature and thus change nature’s fundamental workings. We can’t. Better to cultivate mindfulness, healthy detachment, and a lack of expectation, all while working diligently towards attempts at pure action and agency. “Do or do not; there is no try.”