Wednesday, May 14, 2008


We have expectations. It's natural and unavoidable. It's how we work. Our lives are based on expectations: we expect food to nourish us; we expect water to quench our thirst; we expect the light to go on when we flip the switch--and what a rude shock it is when it doesn't!

My yoga teacher told a little parable the other day (I have no other source to offer; if someone knows the source, I'm happy to give credit):
A stranger approached the gates of the city. In the dust by the road sat an old woman.
"What are people like in that city?", asked the stranger.
"What are people like where you come from?", responded she.
"They are stupid and evil. They lie, cheat and steal and all out of the meanness of their hearts."
"You will find they are much the same here," said the woman.
Later the same day another stranger approached and stopped by the old woman.
"What are people like in that city?", asked the stranger.
"What are people like where you come from?", responded she.
"They are kind, loving and wise. They are generous and hospitable."
"You will find them much the same here."

To me this story is about finding what we expect to find. People are people, in groups some are kind, some are mean, some are smart, others stupid, and so on. People as individuals are themselves usually a mixture of the better and the worse, we may be generous and wise in one way and stupid and grasping in another. Liars expect to find liars and honest people expect to find honest people.

Having an open mind means being able to see the good as good, the bad as bad, and the complex as complex.

But our expectations shape our experience at least partly by shaping our experience. If we expect people to be generous, then when we see a person being generous, that example adds to our expectation of future generosity. I can think of at least two sources from my past that I have read that talk about these matters, but I don't have exact citations. One is the work in experimental psychology that I associate with Kahnemann and Tversky and their colleagues that looks at expectations a compared with probability assessments. The other is Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth century novel among whose concerns was John Locke's association of ideas. Throughout the book there is the constant theme of "hobbyhorses"--ruling interests dominated by past associations of ideas--and in the discussion is a quote that I no longer remember precisely, to the effect that once a person becomes engaged with a ruling passion, that passion shapes all the person sees.

And it's all largely a matter of focus.

This is relevant when we're receiving feedback, because, when faced with complex feedback, we can focus our energy and attention in different ways--we can focus on the good, or the bad, or on the things we can fix, or about the things that we don't understand.

In general, I believe in realistic assessments and carefully checking the weak spots. And I believe that we should balance our attention across all the feedback we get (at least at first); we want to take it all seriously. But in the long run, if that balance tilts towards focusing on the positive feedback and the things that you can affect most easily, there can be a gain in emotional energy--and when it comes to getting a dissertation done, emotional energy can be the resource in shortest supply. We don't run out of intelligence when working on a dissertation, nor do we lose our ability to write and research; what can be all too easily lost is the emotional energy that provides motivation.

In practical terms, one could boil this posting down to the recommendation: focus on the compliments and doable changes in your feedback first. This is, of course, a gross simplification. Among other things, it simplifies the difficulty of choosing where to focus.

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