Expectation vs. Intention

Pooch cafe
Pooch Cafe by Paul Gilligan

I have always wanted to travel. In the childhood home of my earliest memories, we had a sprawling world map that nearly covered one wall of the family room. My dad would pick me up so I could see the countries up close and sound out their names. (My favorite was “Ban-gla-desh.”) As a teenager and into my 20s, I watched with envy while friends made their way to Europe and beyond. My wanderlust was strong, but I was resource-poor and I wasn’t able to begin venturing off this continent until after I was married. (Another nod to hubby!) 

When I arrived in England on my first intercontinental trip in 1999, I couldn’t wait to visit an authentic red London telephone booth (or telephone box if I’m to use the British term). Up until then, I had only encountered them off of British soil. I loved the one in my Seattle neighborhood next to my favorite bookstore. There was also the red box on a corner in Poulsbo, a Norwegian-themed town in western Washington, and another one in Victoria, B.C. (Well, that one kind of counts.)

I walked up to a booth, opened the door, gasped in a mixture of shock and dismay, and quickly shut the door. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was common for ladies of the night to advertise their services – in full living color – via postcard fliers taped to the inside of the telephone boxes. London later cracked down on the practice (the fliers, at least). I turned to my friend and bemoaned, “I just wanted to see a real London telephone booth!” She replied, “But it IS a real London telephone booth.” Yes, but not the one I expected and I was deeply disappointed.

I was reminded of my British box experience when a friend told me about a recent job opportunity that had fallen through. “I set my intention,” she lamented, “but it didn’t happen.” Her comment started me thinking about the difference between expectation and intention, and how easily and often we conflate them.

Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions for expectation. The primary one is the act of anticipation or looking forward to the coming or occurrence of something, such as a phone call. The other definitions better describe the kind of expectations I’m thinking about: “to consider probable or certain,” and “to consider reasonable, due, or necessary.” In these cases, expectations seem to lead to greater attachment to a presupposed outcome, and greater disappointment if or when it doesn’t come to fruition.

Expectations are completely legitimate in certain circumstances. For example, they can provide ground rules for behavior and healthy boundaries for children. They can also set direction and provide clarity for employees. However, expectations become problematic when they leave no room for inspiration or a different (and often better) way of achieving a goal.

When we are attached to an outcome, we have a predetermined idea not only of how we want something to occur, but also how we think it should occur. Because we only tend to see that on which we focus, we often miss all the good and opportunity that remain when our expectations haven’t been met. 

While expectations can be limiting, intentions, on the other hand, can be liberating. As defined by Merriam-Webster, intention is a determination to act in a certain way. I like Dictionary.com’s definition even better: “a purpose or attitude toward the effect of one’s actions or conduct.” Intention is about holding firm to your purpose, attitude, or resolve, regardless of the outcome. Essentially, intention is the bigger picture “why or what” and expectation is the more in-the-weeds “how.”

For example, high-performing and highly-satisfied teams have an intended  goal or outcome set by higher-ups, but they are free to use their own expertise to determine how best to meet it. Conversely, low-performing and unhappy teams often have a boss who stifles creativity and sows discontent by specifically telling employees how to do their work.

When we assume there is only one way – or a best way – to fulfill an intention, we’re effectively micromanaging the universe. We can set our intention to get a new job, for example, but if we want just that one specific cool job, we’re closed off to other possibilities. We also foolishly assume that we actually know enough about every possibility to determine what the best outcome for us would look like. How many times have we looked back on a one-time disappointment and thought, “Oh, I’m SO glad that didn’t work out! This [new job/partner/opportunity/happy circumstance] is so much better!”

By focusing on our intentions instead of setting expectations, we’re making it clear to ourselves (and the universe) what our underlying purpose is and then letting go of our attachment to the outcome. In the job example, we would set our intention for a job that was more satisfying and then remain open to the options of how that might be fulfilled. Oftentimes, it can take longer than we want to see the evidence of the universe’s work behind-the-scenes, but I believe it is always conspiring to assist us. I’ve experienced too many cosmic coincidences to believe otherwise.

When I opened up the classic red telephone box in England, I was so attached to my expectations of what my experience should be that I was blinded to what was right in front of me. Cheeky advertisements? No. I had finally made it abroad. An intention I had kept for years had finally come to fruition. The universe had come through, with perhaps just a little wink at my expectations in the form of a bawdy phone booth.