Mind the (Expectations) Gap

by Alli Polin on May 17, 2013

mind the expectations gap

When I was in college, I studied for the summer in London.  It was a fabulous summer filled with great books, tons of theatre, travel and adventures with friends.  Our flat was right down the street from the Tube, which made getting around incredibly easy.  Every day I’d hear the voice and see a million signs reminding me to “Mind the Gap.”  I would always be sure to take a quick big step from the platform into the waiting car and on the way back out too.  I didn’t want to be the one to fall into the gap and get hurt.

The lesson from the Tube applies in our lives too.  Each one of us creates mental pictures of what “should be” and color it in with our hopes, dreams, fears, desires and experiences.  When we get ready to jump into the reality of what is, there is often that pesky gap that we need to cross; the expectations gap.   Too bad we don’t have signs everywhere cautioning us and heightening our awareness of our personal gaps.

What does the expectations gap look like?

With our children:

“I can remember fractions were so easy to learn, why is it taking Katie so long to figure this out?”

“I applied to four colleges and got into them.  Why on earth would Brad need to apply to so many schools?  It’s expensive!”

With our spouse / significant other:

“When he handed me the box I just knew it was a ring!  I started crying as soon as I saw that it was just a gold bracelet.”

“I know we both work but can’t she get off of the couch to make dinner once in a while instead of suggesting we order in?”

At play:

“That movie was nothing like the book at all!  I love the book and the movie was a total let down.  Wasn’t like I pictured it.”

“Vacation was OK.  I was hoping we’d get a suite like the one we saw on the website.  My heart was really set on it so I was let down when we opened the door to the room”

At work:

“I asked Larry to take what we discussed and turn it into a presentation that we could give to the Board.  I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I was so excited during the interview process that this company had all the things I loved about working at my old job.  It’s still good, but now reality has hit and it’s not all roses and unicorns, I’m thinking about keeping my resume active.”

In each scenario, you can hear the let down and can feel the disparity between the mental picture and reality.  Truth is, not everything is better than you had imagined and certainly not everything is worse either… it’s different.  How can you get comfortable with what’s different, readjust mental models, and cross the gap?  There is no magic formula but here are a few places to start looking ~ the answers are inside of you.

Questions to Ponder:

  • What strengths are present in today’s reality?
  • Is it possible that (name here) is doing their best?
  • What is my judgment cutting me off from?
  • Am I absolutely sure I’m not rewriting history?
  • What would be possible if I let go of the thought that I’m right?
  • What perspective can I choose right now that will narrow the expectations gap?
  • How is the gap highlighting not only the way I see the world, but also the way I see myself?

Yes, sometimes our experiences are better than our expectations but more often than not, it’s the disappointments we remember most.  Challenge yourself to embrace the dichotomy of mindfulness and possibility as you leap from “what could be” to “what is.”

How do you navigate the expectations gap in your work and life?  How do you leap from disappointment to positive appreciation and stronger relationships?

(Photo credit)

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Forbes May 17, 2013 at 7:33 am

Alli, An amazingly powerful question you pose: What is my judgment cutting me off from? Powerful.


Alli Polin May 17, 2013 at 7:40 am

Thanks, Dan. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself lately and do not ask nearly enough. It’s an important one to reflect on. Appreciate your feedback!


Stephen Lahey May 17, 2013 at 8:32 am

Interesting topic, Alli. When selling, “the gap” is especially important to understand. Selling solutions happens in the gap between what is and what could be.


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 12:44 am


You’re right. With sales, not only should there be an awareness of the gap but also growing your customer’s awareness as well. Still, even in sales, when a solution is played up to the point that it sounds like a panacea, it better deliver otherwise it will create a new gap that will be a downfall of that relationship – the gap between what we expect and what’s delivered. Always love your insights! Thanks so much for raising this point!


Lalita Raman May 17, 2013 at 8:35 am

Powerful post Alli. Mind the gap, between my expectations and reality. Love that question. What is my judgement cutting me off from? Dreams are good and great but one has to come to terms with hard core reality as well.

Yes to kick off that disappointment and bounce back is what life teaches us every day :).

Excellent post.


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 12:45 am

Life does teach us that daily, doesn’t it? Thanks for your feedback and the reminder that when we’re disappointed, it’s up to us to reframe and bounce back. Appreciate you!


Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) May 17, 2013 at 10:52 am

Hi Alli,
Very important topic you are tackling here Alli!
At early age it is very important that we have very high expectation in different aspects in life otherwise we lose our motivation to try any new venture. However, when we get older and we start realizing that things are not as expected, it’s important to become more “positively” realistic about our dreams. By remaining positive, we would appreciate the outcome of any new venture we are taking.
Finally, I believe that it is really worth looking at the miseries & problems of other people to appreciate what we have, how small it is.


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 12:51 am

Hoda, There is great value to setting high expectations for ourselves, I agree. Especially when it calls us to play bigger and to be and do more than we would otherwise. Expectation definitely has strong ties to motivation at any age. However, I absolutely love two of your points 1) be realistic (see the positive in today’s reality) 2) Appreciate what is by noticing the world around us and cultivating gratitude in our lives. Many thanks, Hoda!


Terri Klass May 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I too studied in London, Alli and just loved it! (I am not rewriting history!) This post is fascinating as it reminds us to look at the gaps in where we are presently on our journey and where we want to be. As a lifelong learner, I am always looking at ways to become a stronger leader with new skills and knowledge. I guess I try to keep an open mind and by cultivating new relationships, I continue to grow. So happy we met!


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 12:48 am

How funny we both studied in London! What an important addition here! It’s not only the gap between what we expect (or want) in our current circumstance but also the journey ahead. There is very little that makes a gap smaller (and easier to navigate) than learning. I’m incredibly happy we’ve met too! Thanks, Terri!


Alice Chan May 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Great questions you asked to help us mind the gap. (I loved that about London, too. :-)) So much of what our ego convinces us as reality is really only just our projections. Before we know it, we’ve indicted someone for failing to meet our expectations that they didn’t sign up for! What you wrote here and the examples you gave made me think one of the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz – Don’t make any assumptions. When we aren’t mindful of our expectations, assumptions form. Thank you for suggesting the questions you did above to help us mind the expectations gap!


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 12:56 am

Alice, Spot on! Expectations lay the foundation for assumptions ~ about the way the world should be and close us off to the abundance in our lives today. The Four Agreements is a book that I’ve been waiting to pick up for too long but it keeps popping up in my life from people that I respect – like you. It’s clearly time. 🙂 Thanks, Alice!


Guillaume May 18, 2013 at 2:02 am

Hi Alli,
Great post, thank you. I was actually pondering the same topic this week in my own blog. Would love to hear what you think about my piece. http://ggevrey.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/people-are-not-mind-readers-the-most-important-conversation-that-people-never-have/


Alli Polin May 19, 2013 at 1:10 am

Guillaume, Read your post and you definitely hit on some important points about making expectations explicit. The challenge is that so many times we’re not even clear about the expectations we hold for ourselves and others. We need to know ourselves so we can effectively share and build relationships with others and as you wrote, embrace our differences. ~ Alli


Jon Mertz May 19, 2013 at 11:23 am

Alli, In the gaps, we find new treasures in living and leading. We need to step into them and explore what we may be stepping over too often. I guess, another way to think of gaps is this – gaps can be what we should pay attention to more often. It gets us out of our comfort zone and into new worlds of possibility and engagement. Great post! Jon


Alli Polin May 20, 2013 at 8:50 am

Jon, I always appreciate your insights! The gap is DEFINITELY a place to explore and learn and not just cross. Learning about ourselves, motivations and most deeply held values and beliefs can often be discovered in the gap. Thanks for adding new depth to the conversation.


Anne Egros May 20, 2013 at 10:06 am

Great food for thoughts Alli. At work when the manager and the employee don’t talk about their expectations regularly, not only during performance reviews, the employee usually don’t speak up and become resentful while the manager start blaming the employee and get upset. Asking genuine questions and listening actively on what is said and not said are important people skills that I believe are not only intrinsic attributes but can be learned. So a corporate culture that foster emotional intelligence development may have less conflicts due to expectation gaps.


Alli Polin May 20, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Anne – You’re so right! It’s not enough to discuss expectations one time a year at annual review, it has to be an ongoing process of open dialog and honest conversation to avoid all of the things you mention in your comment. Also, as you mention, listening to what’s being said and not said is critical! Sometimes expectations can be subconscious or, for whatever reason, being held back. It’s both the words and feeling that will tell the full story and a great place to focus our curiosity as leaders. Many thanks for sharing your insights here, Anne!


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