Ask a hundred students at Harvard Business School if they expect to be up for a good job when they graduate, and all of them will say "yes."
Ask a bright ten-year old girl if she expects to have a chance at a career as a mathematician, and the odds are she's already been brainwashed into saying "no."
Expectations aren't guarantees, but expectations give us the chance to act as if, to trade now for later, to invest in hard work and productive dreaming on our way to making an impact.
Expectations work for two reasons. First, they give us the enthusiasm and confidence to do hard work. Second, like a placebo, they subtly change our attitude, and give us the resilience to make it through the rough spots. "Eventually" gives us the energy to persist.
When our culture (our media, our power structures, our society) says, "people who look like you shouldn't expect to have a life like that," we're stealing. Stealing from people capable of achieving more, and stealing from our community as well. How can our society (that's us) say, "we don't expect you to graduate, we don't expect you to lead, we don't expect you to be trusted to make a difference?"
When people are pushed to exchange their passion and their effort for the false solace of giving up and lowering their expectations, we all lose. And (almost as bad, in the other direction) when they substitute the reality of expectations for the quixotic quest of impossibly large, unrealistic dreams, we lose as well. Disneyesque dreams are a form of hiding, because Prince Charming isn't coming any time soon.
Expectations are not guarantees. Positive thinking doesn't guarantee results, all it offers is something better than negative thinking.
Expectations that don't match what's possible are merely false dreams. And expectations that are too small are a waste. We need teachers and leaders and peers who will help us dig in deeper and discover what's possible, so we can push to make it likely.
Expectations aren't wishes, they're part of a straightforward equation: This work plus that effort plus these bridges lead to a likelihood of that outcome. It's a clear-eyed awareness of what's possible combined with a community that shares your vision.
It's easy to manipulate the language of expectations and turn it into a bootstrapping, you're-on-your-own sort of abandonment. But expectation is contagious. Expectation comes from our culture. And most of all, expectation depends on support—persistent, generous support to create a place where leaping can occur.
There are limits all around us, stereotypes, unlevel playing fields, systemic challenges where there should be support instead. A quiet but intensely corrosive impact these injustices create is in the minds of the disenfranchised, in their perception of what is possible.
The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see.
If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we've made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we've made a difference. And if we can help erase the systemic stories, traditions and policies that push entire groups of people to insist on less, we've changed the world.