What Did You Expect?

Have you ever planned and prepared for an event with enormously high hopes, only to see your expectations derail so badly that just thinking about the episode afterward turns you red with embarrassment? Well, I gave an invited presentation last week to an important audience of my peers, and it left me with a face as scarlet as a boiled crab.

Mind you, I didn’t wing my talk. I didn’t speak about something I didn’t know. I chose the theme myself, practiced my delivery endlessly and polished, polished, polished. Unfortunately, I also invested so much emotional capital in “wowing” my listeners that when my words didn’t unleash a wildly enthusiastic response, I felt discomfited.

Someone very wise once defined an upset as an unfulfilled expectation, and the higher your expectation, the greater your disappointment when reality falls short. All that night I stared at the ceiling and endlessly relived my performance, desperate to find something in it or in the audience’s reaction that lived up to my expectations. Not one tiny consoling gleam appeared in the darkness overhead!

On the plus side, this episode gave me the perfect opportunity to practice what I preach about how to handle uncomfortable emotions in the workplace. I’m happy to pass along some tools and techniques that finally pulled me out of my funk, so you’ll have them handy on those rare occasions when something similarly awkward happens to you. (And believe me, after what I went through, I sincerely hope such situations are rare for you!)

• Try the “You’re-not-curing-cancer” self-talk. Mine went: What you do is important and you always do your best. But you’re not trying to cure cancer. No one died because of your performance—except you, Silver! (If yours truly is a life-or-death occupation, call me, and we’ll discuss alternative self-conversations.)

• Recall your successes. Remind yourself that this letdown is not the norm for you. Keep a file of your triumphs and review it. Mine is labeled “Happy News and Testimonials.”

• Have a “What now?” plan. What are you going do to avoid more such disappointment? (Apart from move to a desert isle, that is.) In one of my earliest jobs, I began apologizing profusely to my boss for a mistake I was sure would cost me my position. Suddenly, he put up his hand to stop me. “Silver, I don’t mind if you make a mistake,” he said. “It shows you’re trying. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.” I’ve since learned that action cancels fear. When you beat yourself up about something that’s over and done with, you give fear the upper hand. A constructive “What now?” strategy to make you better prepared in the future puts you into action and breaks fear’s chokehold on you.

• Finally, bear in mind that great and positive things are often born of missteps. How great? Pick up Accidents May Happen: Fifty Inventions Discovered by Mistake, by Charlotte Foltz Jones, and read about the ancient Egyptian who unwittingly created the first self-rising bread when he dozed off, but the wild yeast in his dough didn’t.

Start turning your mistakes into steppingstones to victory and a year from now, you’ll be lying awake in bed too excited to sleep precisely because your expectations are beginning to be met. You may not be evolved enough to be happy you made a mistake, but you can at least revel in the fact that you used it as a catalyst to produce the results you’re hoping for.

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