Managing the Motivation Gap between Aspirations and Expectations

We all have aspirations. We may aim high, low, or somewhere in between, but we all have some hope of achieving something. Our desires may not always be well formed or clearly stated goals, but we have them.

We also have expectations regarding our ability to achieve our desires. Expectations, like aspirations, range from low to high.

Advice about how high we should set our expectations varies, too.

“High expectations,” said Walmart founder Sam Walton, “are the key to everything.”

Actor and producer Ryan Reynolds is decidedly more downbeat. “When you have expectations,” said Reynolds, “you are setting yourself up for disappointment.”

Still others take a more pragmatic approach. Like NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, who said, “If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.”

The alignment (or misalignment) of our aspirations and expectations can have a significant impact on motivation and achievement. By understanding how to adjust our expectations relative to our aspirations, we can avoid a deleterious gap that could sink our motivation and hinder goal attainment.

Aspirations and expectations

An aspiration is the hope that we will achieve something. An expectation is the belief that we will achieve something. Our aspirations reflect our desires and ambitions. Our expectations reflect our confidence in fulfilling those desires.

While it’s easy enough to understand the difference between aspirations and expectations, what people often fail to understand are the many factors that influence their formation.

There is a tendency to view aspirations as personal choices we make that are under our complete control. Aspirations reflect our desires, after all, and we can hope for anything we want. In this scenario, people are “cast as free agents able to transcend their circumstances.”[1]

The reality, though, is that aspirations are rarely formed without context. There are a range of cultural, economic, social, and individual factors that influence aspirational formation. Also, aspirations and expectations have a symbiotic relationship, and both are impacted by similar influences.

Our aspirations don’t always reflect what we want, but rather what we believe we can – or are permitted to – achieve. Cultural, social, and economic capital are not equally distributed. There may be cultural constraints or social structures in place that afford opportunity to some but not to all.[2]

Consider the view of a Black female would-be startup founder without a college degree who lives in the midwestern United States. She may have a wealth of experience, a great idea, and a solid business model. If she needs venture capital, though, she has to consider some disappointing realities:[3]

  • Only 9 percent of VC-backed founders are female.
  • Only 1 percent of VC-backed founders are Black.
  • Only 7 percent of VC-backed founders do not have a college degree.
  • 42 percent of VC money goes to Silicon Valley founders. Another 20 percent goes to founders in New York or Los Angeles. Some goes to foreign startups. Only 19 percent goes anywhere else in the U.S.

It’s not hard to see that most venture capital funding goes to college-educated White males who live in Silicon Valley. For anyone who doesn’t fit that demographic, securing venture funding may seem unlikely enough to deter them from pursuing their idea. Or at least that means of capitalization.

So, there are a lot of practical and attitudinal factors that people consider when setting their aspirations and expectations. We have to consider our previous choices, prior accomplishments, and past failures. We are influenced by mentors, role models, our peer group, our available resources, and the opportunities that are presented to us. Our occupational knowledge, our awareness of the obstacles we will face, and our talents and abilities will impact our choices. Demographic factors such as our age, gender, or ethnicity play a role. Ultimately, though, our belief in our own capabilities might be the biggest influence on aspirational and expectational formation.[4]

Over time, we adjust our aspirations and expectations based on a variety of influences and contexts. When our aspirations and expectations are too far apart, we may have trouble staying motivated.

Motivation and the misalignment of aspirations and expectations

Much of the research in the area of misaligned aspirations and expectations relates to the educational and professional goals of students. Sociology professor and researcher Sandra Hanson suggests that mismatched aspirations and expectations result in a considerable amount of “lost talent” among high schoolers. This talent loss is usually evident when:[5]

  • Expectations fall short of aspirations
  • Expectations have to be reduced over time
  • Achievement does not meet expectations

We don’t have to be students, though, to feel the impact of mismatched aspirations and expectations. We all feel disappointment and frustration when we are unable to attain our desire.[6]

According to expectancy theory, our actions are determined largely by the expectation that they will lead to some desired outcome. When we are choosing between different courses of action, we are likely to select the path that provides the most motivational force.[7]

If we value a reward, and we are confident that we can get it, and we believe that a particular course of action will help us get it, then sufficient motivational force exists for us to take that action.

On the other hand, if we lack confidence in our own ability to achieve our aspirations, or if we believe that there are insurmountable obstacles between us and our desire, then we are unlikely to be sufficiently motivated to pursue our goal.

Some people believe that having low or no expectations helps reduce stress and anxiety and leads to greater contentedness. They believe that it is possible to aspire to a lot without expecting much. Why cloud your positivity and optimism with reality?

Those people might be right about low expectations leading to lower stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, low expectations also lead to low motivation, low effort, and low achievement.

A disconnect between aspirations and expectations can significantly reduce effort and motivation. In one study, students whose aspirations exceeded their expectations reported less school bonding, more test and performance anxiety, and higher rates of behavioral and emotional difficulties than did students whose aspirations and expectations were more closely aligned.[8]

It is important to note while both aspirations and expectations are meaningful motivational factors, neither act independently. But is there some sort of golden ratio between the two? Probably not.

Also, whether an aspiration is “high” or “low” is largely personal and contextual. If your family is in the restaurant business, then the aspiration to own your own restaurant someday probably isn’t nearly as high as it would be for a dishwasher who is a recent immigrant with no money or background in the industry.

While having high aspirations and high expectations might not guarantee high achievement, coupling high aspirations with high expectations appears to have the greatest positive impact on achievement.[9]

So, if we want to increase our likelihood of achieving our goals, do we lower our aspirations or raise our expectations?

Delivering a commencement address at Mount Holyoke College, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein advised, “Go out there and do something remarkable. Don’t live down to expectations.”

Reduced aspirations are typically associated with lower levels of achievement, so in most cases we want to raise our expectations. Let’s examine a few ways we can bring our expectations up closer to the level of our aspirations.

Ways to raise our expectations

There is a substantial amount of research that shows a positive relationship between expectations and achievement. Among people of similar ability, those with higher expectations tend to outperform those with low expectations.

Raising your expectations can increase your motivation, effort, and achievement. There are several methods you can use to productively elevate your expectations:

  • Clarify your current expectations. It helps to set a baseline. For any given aspiration, closely examine your current expectations. Are they reasonable? Have you set them too low to avoid disappointment?
  • Challenge yourself, but keep it real. Our expectations should be high enough that we have to set some challenging goals. That keeps us interested and motivated. But they also have to be realistic. Setting unattainable goals can lead to failures that frustrate us and kill our motivation. We want to test our abilities, but we still need to respect our own limitations.
  • Learn something from failure, then move on. There are usually multiple paths to any given goal. Failure gives us an opportunity to learn and then select a more strategic approach. Taking specific action to improve after failure can boost our confidence.
  • Measure the right things. Don’t let metrics become targets. If you try to game your own metrics, you may intentionally seek less challenging situations or lower your standards. Also, measure progress as self-improvement, not how you stack up against others.
  • Expand your peer group. Interacting with other people who have achieved your goal can make it seem more attainable, and can also help you make valuable connections. Aligning yourself with like-minded people provides invaluable support, feedback, inspiration, and motivation.
  • Anticipate obstacles and embrace change. When we are prepared for contingencies, we can raise our expectations with confidence because we know what might happen and how we will deal with it. Don’t fear the unforeseeable and uncontrollable. Accept it and have a backup plan and, if warranted, an exit strategy.
  • Believe in yourself. Trust your own ability to deal with problems and take bold action. Take stock of the many challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome in life so far. Most of us are much more capable and resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Self-efficacy motivates us to strive for and achieve higher goals.

Above all, remember that it’s your own aspirations and expectations that ultimately matter. Not what other people hope for you or expect from you.

If we learn to raise our expectations toward our aspirations, we will see higher levels of motivation and achievement. Challenge yourself, but set realistic goals. And don’t start doubting your ability before you even try. We face enough tests in life without the added burden of self-erected barriers to our success.

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