James Stockdale landed with his parachute in a small village, behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Minutes before, the enemy struck his fighter jet. He had no other choice, but to eject. The villagers beat him and captured him. It was September 9, 1965 in the middle of the Vietnam War. James had no illusions. He expected a long and painful time in captivity. He expected it to be the worst time of his life. He was a prisoner for seven years. He was beaten and tortured by the Vietnamese soldiers daily. The right expectations gave him the mindset and the strength to survive.
Reasons for Anger
Nowadays, wrong expectations are the main reason for anger, frustration and despair. Unconsciously we expect everything to go smoothly without problems. We make perfect plans and never expect something to go wrong. We buy expensive smart-phones, cars and houses, expecting that they will work perfectly. We work with people like ourselves but expect from them to be perfect. Every time our expectations aren’t met we get angry. That behavior is normal but unrewarding.
Knowing what you can control and what not is key. That knowledge helps to avoid harm and negative emotions. Why should you be angry about things you have no control of? Why should you be angry about things you have control of? In the former case you can’t do anything. In the latter case you can do something. Just do it! In both cases you can expect them to happen and you need to accept them!
“What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” – Epictetus
Things we can not change example
The other night I was drinking with my buddies, in a sports bar. Almost everybody was watching the soccer game. A guy at the bar caught my attention. He was yelling at the scream. He was angry. The referee made a mistake and his team lost. He got angry about something he has no control of and which does not affect his life in any way. He made his life harder, by expecting his team to win and that referees don’t make mistakes.
Things we can change example
Nowadays most companies are project driven organizations. Good project managers know that sooner or later something will go wrong. They know that no project is going to be finished without difficulties. This realization leads to one simple conclusion. To be successful, prepare for obstacles. Prepared managers don’t get angry. They don’t get into panic mode. Instead, they help their team by leading it around the obstacle.
How to set up the right expectations
To avoid negative emotions you need to set up realistic expectations. You have to be honest but also pessimistic. This means, you have to expect the worst of people and life in general. When the worst happens you will be prepared to handle it. I take the subway to get to work. Often times I arrived angry and frustrated at work. Until I changed my expectations. I expect the subway to be crowded, with unfriendly, unhappy and aggressive people. I stopped complaining and accepted the situation.
As this works best when you do it conscious, you should make a routine or habit out of it. I take every morning 5 to 10 minutes to write down pessimistic expectations for the day. That way it is conscious and you also can see some patterns. Usually the patterns point at things or people to avoid.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. „ – Serenity Prayer
Stockdales last statement in freedom was: “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” He knew that his life would be hell in captivity. He was mentally prepared for it. The Vietnamese soldiers failed to break him. Instead, he sabotaged their efforts to make him a propaganda tool. He also organized the resistance inside the prison. He helped many of his fellow soldiers to survive and to prevail. During all this time he showed many stoic virtues. The first one was to set up the right expectations!
Call on action
Write down your realistic expectations every day!