The Stoic Guide to Winning The War Of Reality vs. Expectations

This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes, a writer and software product manager based in Nashville, TN. He is also the author of the popular article on our site “8 Stoic Secrets to Help You Build Mental Toughness.”

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“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.” –Seneca

Most of us are torn between the duality of what’s playing out in our minds and what’s actually taking place around us.

We all have certain expectations that things should go a specific way. For some of us, it’s holding fixed expectations that our relationships should be exactly as we’ve imagined—perfect partner, kids, family, friends. For others, it’s the expectation that we should have it all figured out by now, that our careers should follow a carefully plotted path, or that some special event—wedding, birthday, vacation abroad—should live up to the hype.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that higher expectations do not equate to higher levels of happiness, gratitude, or performance. Additionally, projecting fixed expectations is in fundamental opposition to the impermanence and ambiguity that define life. Expecting things to go a set way is to reject the fabric of life. You cannot and will not eliminate all uncertainty from your life, no matter how hard you try.

In reality, there’s no such thing as the way it should be. Everything is in a state of constant motion.

The harder you work to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity from life, the smaller the confines of your comfort zone become. True comfort is found through embracing discomfort, not shielding yourself from uncertainty—and this is the paradox of comfort. The wider the range of potential scenarios that you’ve trained yourself to handle, the better things will turn out.

It’s not that expectations are inherently dangerous. But they become exactly that as we fixate on a single outcome that’s outside of what the Stoics deemed as our ‘reasoned choice’—one which we have little to no control over. Positive visualization—setting expectations sky high and fixating on the best-case scenario–is not so much a strategy, as it is a recipe for failure. Sooner or later you’ll end up wrecked by something beyond your control.

Expectations outside of your reasoned choice leave you fragile, rigid, and reactive. Focusing your limited energy on trying to control every variable and getting from A to B like you’ve dreamed it in your head is restrictive and ineffective. It limits what you will learn, what you can achieve, and the person you will be.

“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” – Epictetus

Negative visualization—contemplating the range of potential outcomes, including the unfavorable and worst-case—is a far more effective technique offered by the Stoics (also known as premeditatio malorum). The greatest minds don’t sit around thinking of a fanciful alternate reality where everything plays out according to plan. They develop the resourcefulness to navigate inevitable obstacles and turn them to their advantage.

The only expectation worth holding is that you take advantage of opportunities to act in accordance with your own values and principles. You should expect to leverage your own resourcefulness and resilience to better yourself, regardless of current circumstances or obstacles. Create your own momentum.

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it – turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself – so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.” – Marcus Aurelius

It all comes down to your perspective. Prepare yourself to handle a range of potential outcomes, develop confidence in that ability, and limit any expectations beyond your reasoned choice. When you adopt this mindset, you strip setbacks and external circumstances of their power to catch you off guard and dictate your life.

Reality rewards resilience. Projecting fixed expectations in life blinds you to everything but the one-track, imaginary path you’ve predicted.

At the foundation of each of these Stoic lessons is the negotiation of reality and expectations.

Acknowledging this inner war allows you to bridge the gap and begin developing the mindfulness, focus, and resilience that it takes to make meaningful progress of your own. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming disconnected and discontent with the only life you have.


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