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Mind Your Baseline

Mind your baseline. It’s alright to have standards and expectations for experiences, but be careful not to allow those expectations to become entitlement.

Are you allowing your baseline expectations to squeeze all of the serendipity out of life?

Yesterday I had the privilege of sharing some thoughts about doing great work with about 1,200 school administrators (principals, superintendents, etc.) in Breckenridge, CO. The event was so much fun, and I had a great time meeting people and signing books after the talk.

I hopped in my rental car and drove two hours to the Denver airport, thinking the entire way about how much of a gift it is that I get to do this. I was exhausted, but grateful. However, at the airport things went off the rails. Our flight through Minneapolis was delayed due to a mechanical issue by five minutes, then ten, then an hour, then two hours. I was clearly going to miss my connecting flight home, so I called Delta to re-route, thinking there must be a dozen ways to get to Cincinnati. There were none. Unfortunately, I’d be spending the night in Minneapolis, and flying home the next day.

July has been supremely busy for me. Because of travel – both vacation and business – I was only going to spend three weeknights in my own bed the entire month. Now, that was going to be two. I was frustrated, even if unexpected layovers are an inevitable by-product of doing this much travel. I arrived at MSP, and got my hotel voucher from Delta, then walked to meet the hotel shuttle. I stopped briefly at the restroom, and when I arrived at the shuttle stop it was just pulling away. I waved and ran, but the driver – looking right at me – didn’t stop. I called the hotel, and learned it would be an hour until the next shuttle. I’d not eaten since breakfast, and it was almost 9pm. I hopped in a taxi and called my wife to update her on my new ETA, which was the next morning.

“I’m just having a bad day,” I told her. “All the cards are falling the wrong way.”

“No you’re not,” she replied. “Think about it – you got to spend the morning in a beautiful place, talking about something you love, impacting peoples’ lives, and earning money for our family. You’re on your way home now, even though it’s a day late, and you get to stay in a hotel tonight and get something to eat. This isn’t a bad day, it’s a good one.”

She was right, all the way around. I knew it before I’d even muttered those self-pitying words. Because I was so used to things being relatively easy, I’d allowed my expectations to rise to unhealthy levels. I almost allowed a few first-world inconveniences to ruin what was, in the big picture, a great day.

Over time, it’s so easy to allow your baseline expectations to get out of control. This can happen in personal situations, like the one I described above, or in your work. At the hotel last night, I was thinking about my wife’s wise words, and realized that there are four stages we go through as our expectations rise to unhealthy levels:

1. Openness. Because you are relatively inexperienced, you have no expectations whatsoever. You take what comes your way, and you are grateful for it.

2. Awareness. As you begin to learn what’s possible, you notice when things don’t line up with your expectations. You hold everyone around you to a slightly higher standard.

3. Expectation. You want experiences to meet a certain standard, and you are extremely disappointed when they don’t.

4. Entitlement. Your expectations shift from “this is how it should be” to “I deserve this, now.” Things that were once privileges become rights.

I see this dynamic at work with teams all the time. A manager asks for something, with very minimal expectations. When the team member over-delivers, the manager is extremely pleased. The next time, the manager asks for something that meets the same standards of the last deliverable. Again, the team member over-delivers, and the manager is pleased. The next time, however, the team member misses the mark slightly. It’s not that the work is sub-par, it’s just that it doesn’t over-deliver in the same way the previous projects did. The manager is disappointed.

What happened here? Openness became awareness of what is possible, which became expectation of over-delivery, which became entitlement to over-delivery. Expectation escalation.

I would encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to mind your baseline. It’s alright to have standards and expectations for experiences, but be careful not to allow those expectations to become entitlement. When you do, you squeeze all of the potential for serendipity out of your life and work. There are no more pleasant surprises. You slowly suffocate all of the beauty out of life.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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