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The Unexpected Results of Expectations

A key distinction can break us out of fight, flight, and freeze.

student holding an alto saxophone
Music, after all, is meant to be played.

As a teacher I’ve prided myself on high expectations for myself and others. I’ve been taught that students rise to the level of our expectations and identified myself as one who strives for excellence.

My middle and high school band teacher, Sue Workman*, inspired this in me from an early age. I remember as an eighth grader sitting in the large band room, carpet squares mounted to the beige walls to absorb our sounds. There as I clutched my alto saxophone in hand, we would repeat the music over and over again, section by section, line by line, until our sound gelled together, and the rag-tag group of middle school musicians sounded like the skilled ensemble of Ms. Workman's vision. I loved these moments. This was the beginning, after all, of my lifetime belief that we have fun through achieving excellence. That we don’t need to choose between either fun or hard work— we can have fun by working hard and pushing ourselves to the next level time and time again.

Expectations Harden

Decades later I keep these formative experiences with me, hold them dear with a sense of pride. Yet other experiences form a counterpoint to my once firmly held belief in the power of expectation. You see, also as a teacher, a parent, and a human, I have experienced expectation to harden, forming a barrier between where we are and where we think we, or those around us, should be. Our expectation sits perched atop judging, and we can mistakenly decide that if we can’t perform something to a level of excellence, then what’s the benefit of the activity? We tell ourselves, “ If I can’t do something well, maybe I shouldn’t do it at all.”

My middle school daughter, like others of this formative age, also know all too well how the shift of expectation begins to shape their experiences. Fourth grade opportunities to try new things and have fun with your friends, get out, move, and be active, now shift into three hour drill sessions, repeating the same high kick sequences, coach with high expectations scanning for the girl whose tired legs no longer reach that imaginary high bar. Uniform and crisp become the goal, hair parted down the center, lips red, lashes full and false— yes, maybe excellence has its limits.

Softening Welcomes

No, don’t get me wrong. I respect these activities and their leaders who push us all to grow.

But as a theatre artist and educator, I know that in order to foster an excellent result, the classroom climate proves crucial. During that first week, theatre class and rehearsals are spent simply in theatre games, exploration, and even whimsy. This environment forms through softening, not rigidity. Together, we soften and embrace a sense of curiosity, exploration, wonder, and play. We possess an openness and responsiveness to what shows up. Without it, insecurity or the need to “prove ourselves” stunt growth. Students become paralyzed and respond predictably with fight, flight, or freeze.

Reflecting on all of this I wonder when do we decide that a softer environment is no longer welcome? No longer fitting for our teams, our children, ourselves? Think back, when was the last time we were willing to learn something new? That ski trip we weren’t allowed to take because if we broke our leg or got injured that would mean the end of our dance season? Shouldn’t a forty-something know how to do all this? Should we just let that activity pass? We turn our hobbies into hustles and hold ourselves to performance expectations and judge ourselves accordingly— stealing the joy that drew us to that activity in the first place. Trophies and awards and tryouts and titles.

Flexibility Training

For danceline, my middle schooler spent nearly six months in flexibility training. Sequences of stretching and incremental changes, sometimes stiffening another day, until the softness could be found again. Ironic in some ways.

Perhaps many of us could benefit from flexibility training of another sort, of softening and letting go of results of our work and instead showing up with a sense of wonder and curiosity and anticipation without expectation of opportunities of the moment, letting go of control, letting go of judgment. Some call it “growth mindset”, but it is more than that, which implies the ultimate goal is found only in the end result of improving to excellence.

Do we always need to arrive at excellence? Is there not value in activity and play, of expanding and shifting? Rich soil after all is soft and flexible– not rigid and hard. Afterall, we don’t shout at our plants to grow larger, grow faster.

But what about those pesky and possibly promising high expectations?

Do we always need to arrive at excellence? Is there not value in activity and play, of expanding and shifting?

The Gift of Belief

Last March marked the one year anniversary of my father-in-law’s passing. He would always say, “you’re capable.” I’ve been thinking about that lately. Y’know those people in your life who you just know believe in you?

You see, belief is different from expectation, somehow. Belief is the joyful, supportive encouragement and excitement for the work that you do in the place that you are. Expectation, instead, can often feel like judgment and a bar that you have yet to meet. Of disappointment in your effort. Invisibility in plain sight.

Have you ever felt that palpable sense of someone believing in your gifts, your contribution, your growth? That moment, that person, is such a gift. How can we be that for someone? How can we find those people for ourselves?

The good news is that our spiritual creator believes in us. Not expects from us. Loves us. Cheers for us. Believes in us.

If we are to lead with grace. How can we remain flexible for ourselves and for our own leadership climate we create through our daily communication?

The good news is that our spiritual creator believes in us. Not expects from us. Loves us. Cheers for us. Believes in us.

How can we just turn on the music and dance? Let each other dance? Let that high bar come. Believe in the possibility and promise of the offering. Cheer. Yes, we may need to try again. But let’s believe. Soften the expectation. Yes, that is okay too. You can expect that from me.

*name changed for privacy



So today, reflect on the distinction between expectation and believing in someone.

  1. Identify a person in your own life who really has believed in you. If you are fortunate enough to have a person like that, reach out to them in gratitude and appreciation. Foster that relationship and connect with that person when you are feeling in need of extra support.

  2. Analyze your own communication approach with people in your circle of influence. How can you shift your high expectations (which might be perceived with judgment and disappointment) to one of belief? How can you communicate that you believe in that person– in their gifts, abilities, and contributions. How can you communicate to them that “they are capable.”

  3. Lastly, how can you soften your own expectations of yourself into one of belief? How can you surrender “the results” and instead focus on the actions– hopefully that bring you joy, growth, and a sense of play.

Download the mini-journal resource below to guide your own reflection along with the podcast episode.

Expectation Journals
Download PDF • 6.32MB

Lead with Grace, The Podcast celebrates the mosaic of everyday leaders leading right where they are with everything they are. Blending the practical and profound, conversations explore stories of vocation, especially as it intersects with communication, collaboration, connection, and calling.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts,iHeartRadio ,Stitcher, and more.

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