You Can Only Avoid Sweating the Small Stuff when You KNOW It’s Small!

Growing up in Minnesota, our neighbors were fond of using the expression, “She couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” That can be the same issue with not paying attention to the difference between goals and expectations.

If you’re a definition kind of person (what can I say? I’m a recovering English major!) here you go:

  • Goal: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result
  • Expectation: a belief that someone will or should achieve something

It’s become clear to me that a goal is the “what” — the thing I want to have or achieve. An expectation is the “how” — the thing I imagine having to do or be to get to the goal.

Maybe like me, you’ve had a one-track mind about this. We can believe that the only way we’ll reach the goal is by meeting our expectations. And if the “how” doesn’t go the way we want, then we can never have the “what.”

Boy is that not true! Here’s a quick story on how I know.


Here’s my personal favorite expression, courtesy of the poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” (I just have fun saying those Scottish words in the second stanza, with the final one pronounced “a-glee,” meaning “get all screwed up.”)

Sometimes we’re thwarted in getting our expectations. But when we can still focus on our goals, different — and often better — ways to get there arise.

Want to know more about the power of setting goals — from a useful neuroscience perspective? Here’s a fast read on that.

The next time you feel stumped because your expectations were unmet, check to see where you are on your goals. You may be closer to them than you think.