Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stress is the Culprit, Expectation is the Accomplice

When I first started my company, I had a bad habit of counting my chickens before they hatched. The minute a request would come in about a prospective client, a new project or a potential business opportunity, in my mind, the deal was already done. 

Let me give that no thought. Sounds great. Count me in. Sign the contract. Put it on the schedule. Tell the world. It's happening. 

That’s just how I’m wired. Expectation overload. Ever since I was four years old, I was the easily excitable, overly optimistic, fundamentally affirmative kid who had the answer before the question was asked.

I couldn’t say yes fast enough. 

Which is cute when you’re a kid, but when you’re trying to run a company, counting your chickens before they hatch can royally damage the coupe.

There’s the stress of holding too much expectation before something happens. There’s devastation of having your hopes crushed when something doesn’t happen. There’s the humiliation of having to recant big news because it didn’t happen. And there’s self torture when you dwell on why something should have happened.

Not good for business.

And, not good for your body, either.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, one of the global authorities on the brain’s reward system, has conducted significant research on the dangers of expectation. His work explores the relationship between reward and risk information in the brain.

In one particular study, Schultz found that if someone was expecting a reward and they didn’t get it, their dopamine levels fell steeply. And, since dopamine is affectionately known as “the neurotransmitter of desire,” this unpleasantness felt a lot like pain. Often spinning a person into a funk that lasts for days. In fact, according to an analysis of his study on Psychology Today, once dopamine levels plummet in these instances, a person can also experience a mild threat response, reducing basic motor functioning for deliberate tasks.

Schultz couldn’t be more right.

For many years, expectation was my drug of choice. I couldn’t kick that sweet candy if my life depended on it.

Until my my life actually did.

I had reached a point in my life where I was so infatuated with the future, so intoxicated with the prospect of good things happening, so intent on living life perpetually poised in a ballet of expectation, I was cheating on the present with a mistress called the future. And like any torrid love affair, what started out as an innocent game slowly grew into a dangerous obsession.

And then one day, I woke up and literally couldn’t breathe. My left lung had collapsed.

Before I knew it, I was being wheeled into the emergency room.

A few hours later, I woke with a tube in my chest tube and morphine drip. And I remember asking the doctor if the collapsed lung was stress related.

He said no.

I called bullshit. 

Because stress is always the culprit. And expectation is often the accomplice.

And so, something I’ve had to learn over the years­­ is how to empty myself of expectation. How to let go of the need for outcomes and to open myself whatever wants to come forward.

One of my favorite tools for doing so is Ten Zen Seconds, a book, a practice, an approach to mindfulness and an invitation to live a more centered, grounded, and meaningful life. Since becoming a practitioner several years ago, now not single a day goes by where I don’t use the tools in some way.

The way it works is, you use a single deep breath as a ten second container for a specific thought, matching the rhythm of your respiration to the symmetry of your words. For example, one of the incantations is, “I expect nothing.”

Those three words changed my life.

First, expecting nothing created contentment, as I felt grateful for what I had. Second, expecting nothing built humility, as I surrendered control. Third, expecting nothing invited calmness, as I freed myself from meeting standards. Fourth, expecting nothing allowed acceptance, as I was saying yes to what is. Lastly, expecting nothing enabled stability, as I rarely felt knocked off center.

That’s what’s possible when we shake off the shackles of expectation and end the habitual anticipation of outcomes.

We experience the perfect quietness of heart.

Dr. Eric Maisel, the creator of Ten Zen Seconds, explains it is a mental and emotional mistake to have expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. Desire as much as you like, try as hard as you like and plan as carefully as you like, he says, but expect nothing. If you expect nothing, you have a real shot at centering.

Keep in mind, not expecting isn’t the same thing as not caring or giving up. Expecting nothing means making the decision to focus on what needs to be done rather than outcomes. Expecting nothing means accepting that reality is under no such obligation to make you happy and give you want you want.

Which reminds me of something I learned in yoga.

When I first started taking class, my expectation manifested in the form of numbers. I started compulsively tracking how many days in a row I practiced. Which was great because it made me feel strong and committed, but after a while, all of that quantifying created an unnecessary expectation. And that started to affect the outcome of my practice. I would think to myself, wow, I’ve done yoga ten consecutive days. I bet my body will start to fatigue.

Sure enough, the next morning I would leap out of bed with searing calf cramps and race to the fridge to suck back coconut water until the pain subsided.

Funny what happens when make gods out of numbers.

All the more reason to empty yourself of expectation.

It’s interesting, the word expectation actually derives from the term expectare, which means, “To defer action.” Meaning, what expectation does is prevent us from focusing on what needs to be done, since we’re too busy obsessing about what could or should or might be done as a result.

And so, if we truly want to experience the perfect quietness of heart, we have to get rid of all that flotsam and jetsam swirling around in our heads.

I remember reading this great article called Secrets of a Trailer Guru, which profiled the legendary video editor Mark Woollen, the owner of a boutique production company that serves an elite group of filmmakers. As a guy who cuts trailers for a living, he actually isn’t a big fan of the trailer phenomenon. Woollen said, “My best experiences as a moviegoer are when I go in knowing as little as possible about a movie.”

That’s what I want my life to be.

The movie I never saw the trailer for.

Expectations are overrated.