There is one piece of writing advice I have given a lot lately: lower your expectations. This may seem like the direct opposite of what you may expect — most people adopt the more positive “Anything is possible!” stance. I am an ambitious person and have worked on numerous ideas that seemed out of reach, but ended up working out. I believe though that ambition and expectations are very different things. You can be very ambitious, but still have low expectations. You can aim to build a billion-dollar company — be ambitious — but you can also say that you only expect to start a company that survives for three months. These may seem like opposing ideas, and, to an extent, they are. But upon further analysis, it is clear that you can reach for the stars, and also set low baseline expectations for yourself. You don’t have to be ambitious or someone with low expectations; you can be both.
The Rationale of Low Expectations
Why do I ask new writers to lower their expectations? I do this because I believe that too many people set very high expectations and end up giving up prematurely. I know this because when I started this blog, I set very high expectations. I aimed to write a 1,000 word essay every day. At the time, I had written content much longer than that on a daily basis. But I was embarking on a new venture — to blog every day in addition to my regular writing routine. My high expectations made me have many second thoughts about the blog, and although I am here today, I wouldn’t be if I didn’t change my mindset. I changed my expectations from writing a 1,000 word essay to writing an essay I was proud of each day. There was no word-count — only the goal to publish something each day. At the start, some of my essays were under the 1,000 word count that I previously imposed. But as I continued to write, my essays started to get longer, and they started to improve in quality. Why? Because I was actually writing; I hadn’t given up.
Show Up Every Day
The key to getting ahead is to show up each day. High expectations make it very difficult for people to show up each day because you have to say to yourself “I have to write 1,000 words today” or whatever your expectation is. That sounds daunting. That sounds energy-consuming. If you set high expectations, then you will often quit before you realize your full potential. You think to yourself that you have so much ahead of you, and you cannot fathom the energy that you need in order to meet your goal. This happened when I started this blog. Every morning, until I changed my expectations, I would wake up and think “I have to write 1,000 words today for a blog post”, in addition to my regular writing. It was tiring and I was tempted to give up — my expectations were too high. The truth is that the lower the barrier for entry, the easier it is for you to get started. If you make your goal for the day to write a paragraph, you are more likely to show up everyday. After all, writing a paragraph is relatively easy, at least in comparison to writing 1,000 words. You can then say to yourself in the morning “I only have to write an extra paragraph today” which sounds a lot better than ‘I have to write 1,000 words today”.
Setting low expectations at the start of something new does not mean that you cannot increase those expectations over time. As you continue to show up and make progress, you can slowly increase your expectations. If your goal was originally to write one paragraph each day, then after a week you can increase your expectations to two paragraphs; two weeks later, you could increase your goal to writing 500 words a day. If you work your way up incrementally, it is easier to gather the energy you need to get started. You are only progressing at the rate you feel comfortable; you know that the task you have set for yourself is manageable. Setting a goal of 1,000 words a day at the get-go would be unattainable; setting a lower goal and working your way up to 1,000 words a day would be reachable. My initial expectations for this blog were “write something I was proud of”, and then my goal became 500 words — more specific, and actionable — then I worked my way up to 1,000 words. Now, I consistently write essays upwards of that word count. My expectations were low to start, but I slowly worked my way up.
The Power of Low Expectations
Let’s say that my goal was to write 1,000 words each day. Two days later, I became tired with that goal and it was so different to what I was used to so I gave up. Let’s say that my goal was to write 100 words a day. Two days later I am saying to myself “I want to write more — 100 words isn’t enough”. My expectations may be low, but over time I can naturally evolve into higher expectations. I believe that, especially in business, setting low expectations is critical. When you set low expectations, you give yourself some room for failure — you are almost certain that you can meet expectations; they are the minimum, but you can still fail. But if you set high expectations and make very large promises, failure is not seen in the same way. People will criticize you for your ambition if you made promises which were completely unrealistic. By setting low expectations, you can work freely without any outside pressures; high expectations may generate attention, but you actually have to live up to those expectations. And if you don’t, your reputation may suffer.
In early 2018, Best Buy stock was up more than Amazon stock over a period of five years. Blackberry stock was up more than Apple stock in the previous four years. You may ask yourself: how is this possible? Apple and Amazon have inspired some of the largest technological revolutions in our history — how did Best Buy and Blackberry outperform them? Well one major factor was that expectations for Best Buy were very low. We expected nothing from Best Buy five years ago, but we expected everything from Apple. Best Buy made some progress and surpassed expectations — therefore, their stock price went up significantly. High expectations were imposed on Apple and although they made great progress, they had to work harder to perform better than Best Buy. Investors had low expectations for Best Buy and so they were rewarded greatly when they done better than expected.
Charlie Munger has famously remarked that “The best way to achieve felicity is to aim low.” In essence, we should set low expectations for ourselves initially, then work our way up. If your goal is to turn up every day to write 100 words, that is usually attainable. Then you can work your way up over a period of weeks or months. A few months later, you are writing 1,000 words per day. Are you ashamed that you set low expectations at the start? Or are you just happy that you started and amazed that you are now writing 1,000 words per day? Obviously you will be happy that you have made all of that progress. When you are starting something new, set low expectations, focus, and work your way up. You should also try to avoid losing ambition. Ambition is an amazing thing — society’s greatest creations were pioneered by the most ambitious people in the world. As aforementioned, low expectations do not mean that you need to have no ambition. You can set low initial expectations, and be ambitious about your rate of growth. “I will write a book this year” is ambitious. Setting a goal to write 100 words per day and working your way up will likely allow you to achieve that goal.
Set low initial expectations and work your way up. Low expectations turn into great results; progress compounds. Also, don’t forget to be ambitious.