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John Singer Sargent: Olive Trees, Corfu (1909)

" … just the sort of vigilance succeeding demands."

Much of whatever ends up constituting GoodNuff stems from expectations. It seems I can guarantee better-than-expected results by merely expecting things to turn out worse. While this focus might produce an Eeyore existence, it might reasonably assure that actual experience, aside from the self-induced expecting, reliably ends up being better than expected, if only because whatever else I might propose, the worse rarely results. More often, an outcome registers a meh on the grand scale of experience, neither great nor terrible, somewhere in the middle. The outcome might only sometimes register, given the swirl of experiences stemming from a swirl of expectations. Connections easily get lost and seem meaningless. Even when I fuss and fret, my anticipations might get lost in rounding on my monthly account statement. It sometimes pays to be inattentive.

Our drive from Portland to Sleaseattle proved almost effortless, even though I'd invested so much time dreading the experience.
The promised torrential rains failed to show, and the pre-dreaded truck traffic had taken the day off. With a couple of minor exceptions, the sky no more than misted, and clouds even parted for a while. Nothing even remotely resembling my greatest fears emerged. The drive was close to effortless, much, much better than expected. I found myself feeling grateful, though, for all my efforts expended in dreading. Had I not dispelled the worst-case scenarios by fretting them into submission, they might have materially affected the actual commission. The trip could not have been that successful had I not framed it as a likely catastrophe.

This lesson seems lost on the writers of project management advice. They most often insist that success results from attempting to accurately predict, that the job entails correctly projecting experience, as evidenced by their universal objective: for the initiative to result in precisely what was expected. They universally characterize variation from expectation as the universal evil, a crime, and a serious personal shortcoming. Consequently, they've encouraged generations of deeply discouraged project teams, ones who tried and failed to satisfy essentially impossible expectations, impossible as well as unnecessary ones. Delightful outcomes more often result from some concerted beforehand catastrophizing, from considering a broader spectrum of possibilities than just one preferred one. The likelihood of realizing a single scenario must be less than the probability of exceeding any odd raft of catastrophic ones. It's just a matter of odds.

The vexing expectations—the Vexpectations—better serve most endeavors, though I suspect some conditioning's required. One must set Vexpectations with a proper perspective. It won't do to insist that we necessarily become whatever we wish for. The notions that our expectations set up attracting vibrations seem absurd, yet many have fallen prey to precisely this sort of curse. My pre-living terrors need not materially reduce my day-to-day experience. Happily Ever After is only supposed to appear after the engagement, not during planning or execution. The point where expectations matter comes long after anyone could hope to change what happened. The result will have entered the past by then. The accounting against expectations only ever happens in retrospect. Prospective perspectives need not delight. I suggest that planning should probably feel painful, for it's the period when anything is reasonably considered, especially the worst than worst-case scenarios. Planning should prove vexing, unsettling. If it isn't, it should feel even more troubling.

The plans that presuppose they've covered everything seem the most delusional. The ones intending to reassure the more fearful should absolutely terrify them. The ones focusing on mollifying concerns should be most concerning, for planning stories might be most useful when cautionary. Planning might always aim to induce fear with the explicit intention of engaging anyway. Curiously, if the plan convinces the funding authority that they have no business dabbling in attempting to achieve that objective, it will have produced the greatest value any plan ever delivers. The purpose could never have been to induce any future but to more properly prepare for the unpredictable. The Vexpectations should remain prominent as stay-awake medicine, helping to sustain vigilance rather than lull into feckless reassurance. When a plan insists you can, it means you probably won't. Those who leave the question open might encourage just the sort of vigilance succeeding demands.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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