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The Curious Power of Human Expectations

Tom Sullivan

August 29, 2017
Tom Sullivan

My 9-year-old granddaughter Ellie and I planted our first garden early last May. Ellie and her mom bought the seedlings for tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, sugar snap peas, carrots, watermelon and cucumbers.  We expected that the harvest would be lighter and smaller because we had not planted the seeds indoors to grow seedlings first.


We were surprised when the snap pea came up fast and big. We have been delighted with the delicious, juicy Jersey tomatoes. The strawberries were planted too late and came up small.  The carrots are not ready, so we’ll see.  But the row of cucumbers stumped us because they came up round and yellow like small, slightly-speckled tennis balls. We were disappointed, thinking that perhaps something went wrong with the packaging of the seeds, until…


Until we picked them, cut them open and discovered a fresh, light, great-tasting cucumber. We shared our discovery via Facetime with my garden-seasoned daughter in Seattle and she told us these were lemon yellow cucumbers.  Our earlier disappointment in this crop turned into delight.  Who knew about lemon yellow cucumbers?  Our little veggie babies turned out exactly the way they were supposed to be.


I reflected on the immediate good feelings brought upon by the revelation that my expectations were wrong all along.  This reinforced something I know well as a human being and as a brand marketer.  Expectations are a curiously powerful force.


On a personal level, the right expectations seem to deliver the right reactions upon realization. Having low expectations may create self-fulfilling results or happy surprise when things turn out better.  Having very high expectations may support achieving higher results or result in bitter disappointment. Understanding one’s own expectations is important for emotional well-being and personal growth. But managing other’s expectations can be the difference between conflict and agreement or success and failure.


On a macro level, expectations affect the fortunes and failures of companies, markets and even nations. Advertisers who over-promise and under-deliver lose brand equity quickly. (JD Powers has built business on the gaps between brand expectations and realizations.) Stock markets rise faster on expectations of a rising market and fall faster when the herd panics. And I believe that the collective expectations of a nation’s citizens can affect the levels of internal cooperation, productivity and prosperity.


This is where my optimism comes into play as I think about Labor Day and the new beginnings that come with the fall season.  I believe that the values and interests that bind Americans are stronger than the issues that divide. But to be successful as a nation, we need to cultivate communication and invest our time and energies in strengthening all communities.


However, studies show the average American spends over 10 hours a day in front of a device screen, with a lot of that screen time being devoted to media consumption. That media fills our heads with all sorts of expectation-forming information.  I noticed something – I have had much more personal peace since dramatically curtailing my consumption of television and radio news in the last 4 months.  I even had time to plant a garden and accidentally discover lemon yellow cucumbers.