About the presenter: John Harrison is a 29-year member of the National Stuttering Association with whom he served as board member and editor of the monthly newsletter, "Letting GO." Stuttering was a presence in John's life until his early 30s. Today, he fully recovered and has been so for 40 years.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

How Your Expectations Can Sink Your Ship*

by John Harrison
from California, USA

(*The expression is colloquial English meaning "defeat your efforts" or "cause you to fail.")

I remember the night I discovered my house was haunted.

I was down in my office working late, and at 10 p.m. I came upstairs to cook a hamburger. While the hamburger was on the stove, I went to the pantry to get the catsup.

In our house, all the spices and sauces sit on the top shelf, but when I looked there...no catsup. I knew we had just bought a big bottle of catsup two days ago, so perhaps it was hiding in the back of one of the lower shelves. I hunched down and rummaged through those shelves.

No catsup.

Finally, after several frustrating minutes of looking, I turned off the light and walked into the living room where my wife was reading a book. "Hey, Doris," I said. Where's the catsup?"

"In the pantry," she said.

"No, it's not. I just looked."

"Yes it is. Do you want me to find it?"

"NO, I don't want you to find it. I tell you it's not there, but I'll look again."

Once again I marched into the pantry. I turned on the light. There, right in the front center of the second shelf, was a large bottle of catsup.

The hair on my neck stood up. "Omygod! I'M LIVING IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Some mysterious presence has taken up residence and is moving my stuff around!!!"

For the next week I walked gingerly around the house, waiting for the ghostly presence to strike again. But strangely, nothing happened. Finally...FINALLY...I woke up one morning with the answer. I knew what had happened. I'd had an expectation that the catsup would be on the top shelf or at the back of one of the other shelves. I didn't expect it to be right at the front of the second shelf. So while my eye saw the bottle, my brain didn't register it.

That's when I came to a realization that's been nothing short of life changing -- my expectations can actually prevent me from seeing physical objects...and opportunities...that are sitting right under my very nose.

Now, I'm not putting down expectations. They give structure and predictability to my life. If I send you an email, I expect the Internet to deliver it. If I call a plumber to fix a leak, I expect him to know what he's doing. And if I come to an intersection and the traffic light is green, I expect that the cars with the red lights will stop and let me pass.

But, as this next story will illustrate, there's a difference between having expectations, and allowing your life to be run by your expectations. Whenever you do that, you're giving away your power...to others and to circumstances


Back in high school, I was a secret admirer of a charming, auburn-haired girl named Carole. She was gorgeous, she was very smart, she was a great athlete, and she was very popular.

"Did you ask her out?" you ask.


"Why not?"

Because I didn't expect she'd go out with me. After all, she was very popular, and I was just an ordinary guy and very shy.

Fast forward five years. I was at a party in New York City, when who should walk into the apartment but Carole, my secret love in high school. By that time, I had gotten over much of my shyness with girls, so I went over and chatted with her. During the conversation I said, "Carole, I have a confession to make. Back in high school, I really had a crush on you."

She stunned me with her reply. "I thought you were kind of cute," she said. "You should have asked me out."


It was a perfect example of how I gave away my power and let my expectations control my life.

It doesn't have to be that way. If you stop giving away your power to others...if you stop basing your self-esteem on other people's approval...or whether or not you were successful...you can hold onto your power and motivation and confidence...even though circumstances may not work out.

That sure wasn't me. I was so hungry for other people's acceptance and validation that I become an approval addict. I let circumstances and other people's approval determine whether or not I felt okay.

When they did, I felt validated. When they didn't, my confidence plummeted. So I often played it safe, and I didn't even try.


If you want to hold onto your power, no matter how things are working out, then the trick is not to let your expectations be the source of your motivation ...but rather...to base your motivation on your intentions.

Thomas Edison was a man whose expectations went unmet so many times you'd think he lived a life of total discouragement. Quite the contrary...Edison was America's greatest inventor. Over his lifetime, he patented 1,093 inventions, more than the next two inventors combined.

In 1878, Edison created a prototype for the incandescent light bulb. It consisted of a thin strip of paper attached to wires at either end and sealed in a vacuum inside a glass bulb. When electricity flowed through the wires into the paper "filament," it heated up, and glowed. Voila! light. It had only one drawback. The paper burned up in seconds. Clearly, not a successful commercial product.

So Edison set out to find a material for the filament that would burn bright enough and long enough to be commercially viable. He searched the world for every conceivable material that might work. He tested filaments made from every plant imaginable -- baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, bamboo. He wrote to biologists who sent him plant fibers from exotic places in the tropics. He even tested a hair from the beard of his lab assistant. Nothing worked.

Do you know how many different materials Edison tested until he found something that did work?

Over 6,000!

That's 6,000 consecutive expectations that weren't met. 6,000 failures in a row until he found that a carbonized cotton thread would meet his requirements.

What in the world kept him going?

Two things. First, Edison liked what he was doing. He just liked being in the laboratory and conducting experiments.

Equally important, Edison wasn't driven by his expectations. Certainly, he had expectations (over 6,000 of them). But Edison was driven by his intentions, so whenever something didn't work out, Edison would simply say, "Now we know a little more about the problem." Thus, even those experiments that didn't work out were experienced by Edison as a useful experience.

I know what you're thinking. "All well and good, but I'm not Edison. I'm not totally dedicated to a single life purpose. How does all this apply to me?

Perhaps this next story will be easier to identify with.


She was a young girl who grew up in the suburban community of Palo Alto south of San Francisco. She was a pretty girl, but nobody thought she was particularly bright. In fact, her two sisters regularly addressed her as "Hey, stupid."

However, she was conscientious and hard working. At the age of 14 she worked part time at Mervyn's, a clothing store chain, and her supervisor liked her so well, that the following year they even made her an assistant manager.

But she was not popular in school. In her senior year her good looks did get her elected homecoming football queen though ironically, she wasn't even able to find a date to take her to the game.

She didn't go to college. A year later, she met a graduate student from Stanford University. They fell in love and married. You could almost write the scenario. Pretty girl marries guy, has nice home in the suburbs with two cars and a dog. Raises a couple of kids. Barbecues on the weekends. Joins the country club. Becomes a soccer mom.

Except it didn't happen that way.

This girl loved to bake. Specifically, she loved to bake chocolate chip cookies. One day she had a brainstorm. "I'm going to open a cookie shop."

She went out looking for a bank loan. Being young, and relatively inexperienced and not having any of your own money to invest does not make you attractive to lending organizations. She received rejections one after the other. But she WANTED to open a cookie shop. Her intention was to open a cookie shop. So she kept on looking. She finally found a bank who agreed to loan her the money...at 21% interest!

Opening day came, and by noon, she hadn't made a single sale. Discouraging? Of course. But she had a very clear intention to sell cookies and to make it work. So after lunch, she piled up a plate full of cookies and walked up and down the main street of Palo Alto, handing out free samples. By the end of the day, she had sold $75 worth of cookies.

In case you don't know, I'm talking about Debby Fields whose chain of 600 Mrs. Fields Cookies stores has more than $400 million in sales per year.

There are an infinite number of stories like this one - stories about people who had every reason not to push forward. And yet, who did.

People like Michael Jordan who was cut from his high school basketball team. People like Dr. Spock, who sent his first children's book to 24 publishers before he found one that would publish it. (Today, there are over 100 million of his books in print.)

All of these individuals succeeded primarily because of one thing they had a clear intention, and they made fulfilling that intention their number one priority.

If you're a PWS, it's very easy to place your intentions after your expectations. If I spoke in a situation and I blocked, I would avoid speaking in that situation again. If I said something, and it seemed awkward or silly, I would run it over and over and over and over and over in my mind, trying to make it right (which, of course, I could never do.) I'd end up beating myself up and feeling bad. That usually killed my self-esteem.

But in the last few years, I've been following a strategy that works so well I regret I never stumbled on this sooner. My remedy? Make sure I reward myself for following my intentions, regardless of my results. Here's one novel way I do it. In my neighborhood, we have an ice cream store that has the world's best mocha fudge ice cream. Whenever I do something particularly difficult...especially something that did NOT work out...I ask myself two questions: (1) What was my intention? And (2) Did I follow my intention?

If I defined and followed my intention, then I reward myself with a BIG scoop of mocha fudge ice cream...no matter how the situation turned out! And as I eat it, I make sure I remind myself just why I've gotten this reward. Just to repeat, this step is extremely important. You don't have to buy yourself a gift or tank up on fattening food. But some tangible recognition of what you've done really helps to fix in your psyche your act of taking charge.

I also I follow the example of Thomas Edison. If my efforts are not successful, I tell myself, "Well, now I know a little bit more about the problem."

Tangible reward plus the chance to learn something valuable -- it's a no-lose proposition.

I'd like to conclude with a story from the animal world that really illustrates how powerfully your expectations can shape your perceptions. A research biologist had a large tank of water in his laboratory separated into two parts by a glass divider. One day he put a large bass in one side. In the other, he introduced a school of tiny minnows.

For one full week, that bass continually beat on the divider, trying to get at the minnows. No luck. The next week, it still tried, but as the week progressed, the bass slowly lost interest. It "knew" that the minnows were beyond its reach. By the third week, the bass stopped trying altogether.

Then the scientist removed the glass.

Did the bass say to itself, "Hot dog, I can finally gobble up those minnows!" It did not. In fact, the minnows even swam around its mouth and the bass paid them no attention. After all, the bass had found out what was "possible" and what wasn't.

Does that sound like you? Do you allow your expectations run your life. Do you miss even seeing those opportunities swimming around you because you know you can't speak fluently in a particular situation. Do you know that somebody won't approve of you or what you do so you won't try? You may be responding just like that bass.

If, on the other hand, you focus on your intentions, instead of your expectations, and allow your intentions to drive your life, you may discover that all those things you say you've been looking for have been sitting there...just like that bottle of catsup.

Right under your very nose.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

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