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Adam Blatner, M.D.

May 23, 2010
Misleading expectations represent common thought patterns in our world, subtle forms that support oppression. They are fundamentally mistaken and misleading. Let’s unpack this idea:

First, they express a rather simplistic mode of thought. It’s okay for kids to think this way, but, ideally, we need to be teaching people that life is really quite complex. For example, even the seemingly simple instruction, “Pick up that fork” denies the actual fact that there are different ways of picking up that fork! Faced with an effort to obey, a parent might respond in an exasperated fashion, “No, that grasping the fork with your whole fist is crude, like a child!” Some parents don’t realize that they’re communicating reproach and evoking shame by phrasing the correction that way. Instead, they might say, “That’s it. Now let me show you a more refined way to hold your fork. Okay, that’s closer. Try it this way. Um, nice!”

Most tasks are complicated, have many components and often sub-components. All of these often can be mastered at a level of 10% - 99% skill. Let’s say that an eye surgeon has mastered his procedure through practice so that his skill is at 99% But residents in eye surgery taking on a given small part of a procedure may only do it at an 81% skill level, and that’s after practicing the skill on cadavers or other models so that their competence advanced from 30% up to 80%—and that required eight practice sessions, each one of which entailing four task practices.

Even that is simple compared to the problems of working with a moving, weaving target, and then, when working with people, the task isn’t simply aiming, but rather negotiating, cajoling, empathizing, and in other ways involving the hundred-odd component skills of working with people. More, what if seeming adults—no longer children!—nevertheless have problems with initiative, perspective, confidence, and other qualities that you thought only kids had? (Well, they do!)

What I’m getting at is that competence is highly complex and few people if any attain perfection. No, I’ll go a step further, and say that competence, like perfection, or the speed of light, is what’s called an “asymptotic limit,” meaning that the closer you get to your destination, the harder it gets, and as the Paul Simon song (of the 1980s?) goes, “the more you keep slip-sliding away.”

In other words, the reproach or blaming statement, “You should have gotten it right” is actually oriented to the realms of (1) a simplistic view towards skills; (2) a corresponding ignorance of the nature of learning and doing, a systems understanding that appreciates the function of ongoing feedback; (3) and some roots in an educational system that believed that much of reality could adequately be described in terms of right answers, true and false.

Stated another way, what we need to do is to simply give feedback, encourage, and create opportunities for correcting and correcting again. That’s ideal. Sometimes this is harder to do because mistakes—or even just mediocre instead of high competence—has unfortunate consequences.

I became aware as part of a dream that even when I thought I knew what I was doing, in situations where I felt somewhat confident, unexpected frustrations or developments could throw me off, prove me wrong. I reflected on a goodly number of times when I was judged not to be as competent as I thought I was, and got into varying degrees of trouble because of it. There were many significant moments of grief, shame, guilt, fear, and other extensions of screwing up. And these were for the times I didn’t know I’d messed up. Then there were ten or a thousand times the number of incidents in which, to use a metaphor, the ball didn’t go in the direction I threw it and the window broke. (Of course, the ball did indeed go in the direction I threw it, but it would be more true to say that I overestimated my capacity to throw in the direction of my aim. Let’s try to accurately state the case and avoid excuse-making.)

The excuse, on another level, is just the point, though: I often do things with moderate confidence and it turns out that this level of confidence was over-estimated. Then there are times that perhaps I under-estimate my confidence and avoid trying what I could in fact probably achieve. The key to this conundrum is the process of feedback.

If I can (1) expect that my assessment of my ability is at best only rough and that sometimes I’ll overshoot and sometimes under-shoot the mark; and (2) expect that I’ll get feedback from others or my own observations as to the effectiveness of my efforts, then perhaps I may be encouraged. Or perhaps, if I expect overwhelmingly negative feedback, blame, reproach, “why didn’t you do it right the first time?!”—then I may be discouraged.

My point in all this is that I see discouraging feedback happening far more often than it needs to or should, and the feedback is based on a general worldview that is itself complex, but includes such ideas as the following:
    – If you couldn’t do it “right,” you should not be in that high-status position—politician, consultant, parent, teacher, etc.
    – If you tried, paid attention, you would have done it right. (This is true in perhaps 8% of the situations—there are indeed occasions in which attention and/or effort makes a difference. But the problem is that around 92% of the time, these are irrelevant. The task was too complex.
     – People are qualified for their jobs.

Let’s unpack this last item: Most jobs are complex, and—I’m just making up these numbers to give an idea of proportionality—say there are ten components. Most people are skilled or even talented in 3 of those components—and that’s perhaps why they were hired. Then they’re average or okay in 3 more of those components. What tends to be ignored and denied is that in many complex roles many if not most people are sub-marginal in 20% and pretty incompetent in 10-20% of those roles. Most of the time their strengths compensate for their weaknesses, but on occasion something comes up that requires the performance of that part of their overall role repertoire that is under-trained, un-talented, sub-optimal, and/or incompetent. Then you get trouble.

My insight is that in time this is bound to happen. What’s artificial is our unrealistic expectation, our naivete, our cultural transference from the attitude of a young child towards a parent: You can’t make it mistake! That’s horrible, unforgivable, catastrophic!  In fact, we should expect this to happen as the product of a more mature appreciation that life is complex, roles are complex, mistakes will happen, and that’s just the way it is.

The Tendency to Blame

In part, this tendency arises from another type of skill deficit—that of teaching, giving feedback, constructive criticism, diplomatic support, encouraging correction, etc. Most people have had little modeling from elders for learning the skill of constructive feedback—and indeed, the opposite. The pulse of shame and guilt tends to fix this message a little stronger in the mind. It also tends to retard the development of more mature approaches, and what continues is the mentality of the young child—which is more egocentric and either-or in style—all of which supports a simple blaming modality. Alas, I suspect this dynamic operates in over 70% of the human responses to errors. Less, perhaps, when dealing with others who are young children, who obviously can’t help making mistakes; or with students who acknowledge that they’re making mistakes and are open to being corrected. More, perhaps, when dealing with others whom we think “should know better,” such as elders, peers, co-workers, those who seem to have pretended to be competent, and even more for those who seem resistant to our feedback and correction.

The solution won’t be perfect, either, but it involves all concerned (a) knowing that complex activities—most activities, in fact—require feedback, and often repeated feedback; (b) it’s possible and desirable to learn to give feedback without vagueness, reproach and blame; (c) even better to give feedback with encouragement, tact, and specificity; (d) good also to be open to the idea that the feedback given was not specific enough, overly vague, may have addressed the wrong component, etc. (e) and thus the person giving feedback needs to be open to the idea that the quality or content of the feedback may need to get feedback in order to do a better job of giving feedback! (Teachers, psychotherapists, managers, and other people helpers need to know this! Their desire to help may not suffice; their efforts to help may not work as well as they wanted it to!)

The process could be extended. It’s complex, it really is, and it has to be, not because anyone is trying to make it complicated. I’m not just doing an intellectual dance to show off. It really is this complicated, and more, even.

The solution involves the development of a measure of trust in the process. We’re working together. I’m going to (at least tentatively) assume that you want to work on this with me. It will require a number of gentle messages back and forth, a kind of collaboration, a tone of cooperation.

Sometimes it takes time even to set the stage, to get the person who is the helper to be patient, to trust that the helpee wants to learn; or vice versa, to let the helpee know that the helper will be patient, tactful, and encouraging rather than shaming.


The art of collaboration is multi-dimensional. First there’s even getting some agreement on what is relevant, what is of interest to the helpee. More often than not the helper, teacher, minister, leader, is trying to “get” the subordinate to warm up to something that is of little interest to him. Several alternatives operate here: Sometimes the teacher can get the student’s attention and arouse interest. Sometimes it’s better for the teacher to explore or be sensitive to what is of more interest to the student. It may not be the subject-matter that the teacher or helper had prepared or thought she was going to use.

Can the teacher be flexible, explore with the student or person to be helped what is of interest? Many teachers naturally exhibit this intuitive flexibility, they find what catches the student’s interest and build on it.

Paolo Friere sought to reform the art of education (i.e., “pedagogy”), by promoting this kind of heightened collaborative attitude on the part of not only teachers but also students. There’s some responsibility to be shared here with people in the student role. Since Friere imagined working with less-educated adults, this imagined the helpees to be capable of being helped, first, to locate or identify that which was of interest or relevance to them. Even this process may require a variety of approaches, warm-ups, negotiations. Again, there is no place for blame, which would be a symptom of impatience, which would be a symptom of an underlying assumption that the other could if they only would. But in fact the reason blame is most often irrelevant is because those who seem problematic don’t fulfill the expectations of others because they really don’t know how to do what is being asked.


One of the blocks here is another cultural illusion—that people know what you mean when you use a word. Rarely this is true. Even the old “pick up the fork” can be obeyed in different ways. People often don’t realize how specific they need to be. Our educational system tends to overly emphasize abstraction-building, which is indeed a good skill. But equally needed is the capacity to deconstruct abstractions and offer examples. Often the sub-types of a given abstraction are crucial to the discussion. Anger is not always destructive: Sometimes a bit of anger is the way to communicate the necessity to take one’s position into account. Sometimes it partakes of righteous indignation, and deserves respect. Sometimes it’s personal, but often it’s not personal, but aimed instead at some facet of the issue at hand. The idea that anger is bad or hostile is an over-generalization.

So, too, with almost any generality. Most of those words have ways of doing them that can be overdone, under-done, aimed at the wrong target, or just right. The mistake is the common belief that words are equivalent, mean to others what is meant by the person speaking (or writing) the words, and, in short, it is another over-simplification of another category—language. And, like tasks, language needs a fair amount of feedback to clarify what is meant. For example, one person means by the terms “twilight” a period between afternoon and dark night that may differ from another person’s meaning. “Dusk” and “evening” are similarly ambiguous.

Nor is this superficial. Many of the words that evoke deep feelings are similarly ambiguous. What is meant by being “really masculine,” “feminine,” “God-fearing,” “honorable,” “patriotic,” and so forth? In fact, different folks interpret these words in different ways, and these differences make for a lot of misunderstanding in our culture.

Courage and Patience

Another corollary of all this is that much of life involves the undertaking of tasks for which one is not (and perhaps cannot be) completely prepared. Motherhood is one example, and chances are that the kid will be in some ways not typical. This kid will be more strong-willed; that one has an untapped talent that the parent doesn’t even know how to identify; this one is clearly handicapped in some way; that one is also handicapped, but strangely gifted. The “right” way to respond as a parent is often nowhere in the books. Then there’s the challenge of getting co-parents—spouses, other relatives—to get on the “same page” in the parenting strategy.

Many other tasks are similar in complexity. We must also recognize that as time goes on, styles of parenting, managing, and helping evolve; new technologies and environmental or cultural circumstances evolve; and what was mastery of a skill in one era may become obsolete or even considered disreputable in another. The solution is an attitude of enjoying the creative challenge; appreciating and cultivating creativity and the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that feed into creativity; an awareness of the necessity of constructive feedback, giving and receiving it; a sensitivity to behaviors and attitudes that stifle experimentation and learning, such as blaming and reproach; and so forth.

I’ve realized that living requires a demand for role competence that often goes beyond the actual competence that can be brought to the task. In the face of such challenges, one needs courage. I had to try to do things when I thought that I could, but wasn’t sure; when I was pretty sure, but it turned out I didn’t have one component mastered; when I wasn’t sure I could, but I had to go ahead; and even when I was pretty sure I couldn’t—and even then sometimes I had to try. Sometimes, it turned out, I could! (And sometimes, doggone it, I was right—I wasn’t ready yet.)

This process, viewed from the outside, is by no means something that operates within the mind of the individual. It’s relational. If the others make the job so confusing, or so threatening as to drive away all but the most dedicated—and some types of hazing serve to do just this—that will discourage most people. If the others are skilled at helping and encouraging—a skill that again needs to be developed significantly by most people—then they’ll have a better chance at evoking the courage to try and try again in those they are helping.

It’s mixed, too. If you think you’re encouraging a student, but the system you’re in only offers one chance to succeed—no room for practice and ongoing development—then you need to expand your awareness to consider the larger context. Many well-meaning people operate in larger social systems that are subtly oppressive. The point here is than in considering the goal of promoting optimal performance, to include not just the intra-psychic realm of the student, but the interpersonal, group, and cultural realms, too. There’s also a need to break down the task to recognize the more subtle but possibly essential components of the task.


Life is complex, and we should become more forgiving and compassionate. Much of life requires the need to forge ahead even though one can know or sense that one is not fully competent for the given challenge. This paper has noted some general cultural attitudes that make progress harder. One is the expectation that people “should” know what they’re doing, be masters of all components. Few people are, in fact, and the expectation is overly-general and simplistic. Other expectations include such things as thinking that blame and reproach are effective forms of feedback, when in fact they are most frequently discouraging. I hope this discussion can help others to think out this complex problem that is relevant in all endeavors, from supervision and management to parenting and teaching. 
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