01/13/2015 09:32 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

The 80/20 View of Expectations

Public transport in London has been transformed by one simple act of technology -- electronic boards that show when a bus or Tube train is due. Travelers can adjust their expectations and stop scanning the horizon or fretting about whether a ride is coming. Would that we could do the same thing in life.

Scott Peck started his most famous book by saying, "Life is difficult." But he explained that once you realize it is difficult, it is no longer difficult. Expect any easy life, and you are bound to be disappointed. Expect difficulties and you can take them in your stride.

Yet expectations are myriad. Can the 80/20 principle help us focus on the expectations that are most important, for good or ill?

Yes. A moment's reflection should convince us that some areas of expectation are more important than others. What are the 20 percent -- or 5 percent, or 1 percent -- of expectations that are most crucial in our lives? First, let's deal with potential difficulties. Can we develop early warning indicators for the most crucial problems?

Early Warning Systems

What are these? You will have to decide what these are in your own life. But for most of us, two of the biggest potential problems are our relationships, and, especially as we grow older, our health.

To have a close friendship or romantic relationship is a marvelous thing. It makes life worth living. Most friendships endure, but what is the potential problem? In a word, it is distance. Have you ever had a very close friend, and then moved to another town or country, and seen what happened to the friendship? Very often, it weakens or dies. So the antidote is either not to move -- which is a rather drastic and often life-restricting decision -- or to deliberately ensure that the relationship is kept alive by visiting the friend and spending time with them every few months, and inviting them to come and stay with you. I had two close friends when they lived in Cape Town -- where I spend three months a year -- but then they moved to England, where I rarely go these days. We lost contact. Now I am going to see them for a few days in May, and then they will visit me a couple of months later. Simple decisions, but ones we often neglect to make.

Most romantic relationships decline over time. Not all, but most. What is special about the ones that don't? On the positive side, it is usually a shared interest, which both individuals are passionate about. So make sure you and your partner have at least one of these. It could even be something new to both of you -- such as owning a dog, doing voluntary work together, or traveling to places you both like. On the negative side, the danger is... again, distance and time. I have observed -- and even, sadly, predicted correctly -- that when partners start spending time away - abroad on work, for example -- then they are likely to drift apart. Ensure that you sometimes travel together, if that is possible, and that you "book time" to do things together when you come home. Sounds artificial, but it works.

As far as health is concerned, this is worth taking precautions over. The best policy is two-fold -- to get in the habit of regular daily exercise; and to eat healthily. Then, have a blood test every year at the same time and get it analyzed by your doctor. Three simple acts, but likely to extend your life and make it healthier and happier.

The Most Vital Positive Expectations

Expectations do not have to be negative. The few positive expectations that are most valuable are those that:

• Expect life to develop in a way that progressively enriches your life, by adding a new interest or role to your life every few years. A new job, learning a new language or learning anything that fascinates you, living in a different country for a while, developing a new close friendship, doing something artistic, musical or intellectual, exploring your spiritual side -- it can be anything or everything. But it has to excite you. Does nothing excite you? If so, you might as well die. Happily, we are able to become excited by new things.

• Expect that as your body begins to go downhill, you can arrest the decline by taking appropriate action. Again, exercise and diet are usually the best levers.

• Expect that as you age, you can develop your mind and spirit continually. These can get stronger and stronger.

• Expect your close relationships to get closer. Know what the few close relationships are. Nurture them. Spend time with your close friends. Expect that every year or two you will make one new close friend. Decide whom it might be -- keep on the lookout.

• Expect that life won't develop as you plan. "Life is what happens when we are making other plans," said John Lennon. Be flexible and turn events to your advantage. Take feedback seriously. By all means plan, but don't be too specific or deterministic. Plan to get stronger and more interesting, by being more interested.

Poisonous expectations

There are three above all that can harm our lives:

• A pessimistic view of life. They say that when you go to a foreign country you pretty much find what you expect to find. It is the same with life. "The mind is its own place," wrote John Milton, "and can make a heaven of a hell or a hell of heaven." During the Second World War, the British Admiralty noticed that when ships had been sunk and the sailors had to exist for days in lifeboats, it was the eldest sailors who tended to survive. This made no sense -- you would expect the younger and fitter sailors to cope with exposure better. But then some clever analyst noticed that it was really the sailors who had been sunk before, and survived through the lifeboat experience, who could cope with a second dose of it. They knew they were going to be alright. By training the sailors to expect survival, actual rates went up markedly. Optimism is perhaps the greatest biological weapon of humankind, and pessimism is perhaps the greatest destroyer of happy lives. The psychologist Martin Seligman has shown how pessimism can be tamed and optimism deliberately cultivated -- I recommend his books on this.

• Similarly, if you expect to fail you will, and vice versa. Find something that you know or can convince yourself that you can succeed at.

• The third and final poisonous expectation is a sense of entitlement. None of us are entitled to assume that because of our skills, experience, personality, contacts, or money, that we should be treated specially. A sense of entitlement is dangerous because it denigrates other people and it can make us bitter if our "entitled" expectations are not met. It is fine to anticipate success but it should never be taken for granted - life's banana skins should also be anticipated. I think it was her visible sense of entitlement that sank Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 - too many people reacted against Hillary and decided to back the unknown outsider, Barack Obama, against her, even though she was better qualified to be President. I wonder if we will see the same thing again, if not in the nomination race, in the actual Presidential voting in 2016.


1. Develop positive expectations, but do not be thrown when these don't pan out. Be confident, but flexible -- and confident in your flexibility.

2. Develop early warning systems for the most important things in your life. In relationships, beware of distance. Expand shared interests. In health, improve diet and take daily exercise, and have annual blood tests.

3. Train yourself to be more optimistic. Whenever you find yourself getting pessimistic, shake yourself out of it. There is always a good reason to be optimistic -- find it.