Be careful what you ask for…

…or, you might get it!  I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has given me this warning. This wise advice usually comes from a trusted friend who knows me well. Although this statement always comes in the form of a warning, it typically isn’t an attempt to force me to change my goals. Instead, it’s a warning that all goals, even noble goals, almost always come with unexpected consequences.

Immediately after joining the US Army, I wanted to try out for service in the Ranger Regiment. I understood some of the challenges I would need to overcome to serve in this unit successfully. However, when I got into the training, I quickly realized I had yet to learn how challenging the assessment and selection process would become.

The selection process for this special operations unit was far more grueling than I was asking for.

After serving for a few months in this unit, I wanted to have a chance to test myself in combat. More than once, I heard a seasoned combat leader warn me, “Be careful what you ask for, or you just might get it!” All I knew about war was what I had read in the books and seen in movies.

These leaders knew a side of combat that I had never experienced before, and this was one of my first painful moments when my expectations required much more from me than I anticipated.

I had unrealistic expectations for myself of life in the military and service in combat. After my first real firefight in a combat zone and seeing the blood and dead bodies of warriors around me, I realized that war is not like it’s depicted on the big screen.  Thank God I had Ranger buddies like Kurt Smith to meet the challenges of this grueling unit with me.

But, you don’t have to endure the same hardships and heartaches my expectations brought me. Here are some ways you can manage your expectations:

Getting more than you expected

Expectations are a tricky thing. On one hand, they can be a source of motivation, pushing you to work harder and strive for better. On the other hand, they can be a source of stress and disappointment, making you feel like you’ve failed when things don’t go as planned.

Kurt helped me manage my expectations about service with the US Army Ranger Regiment.  If it wasn’t for him and a few guys like him, I probably would’ve lost my mind in my first assignment with this unit.

It’s essential to be realistic about your desires. This means setting challenging, but achievable, goals based on your current abilities and resources. It’s also important to recognize that you can’t control everything and that sometimes, things that are outside your control will happen. Setting realistic expectations and accepting that there will be setbacks can reduce the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed or defeated.

Special operations warriors are usually given NO-FAIL missions in combat. Setting realistic expectations is almost a foreign concept to special operations warriors. Nothing in action is worse than being overwhelmed and unprepared on a no-fail mission.

Getting more than you can bear

Be realistic about your capabilities. Most people are their own harshest critics, setting impossibly high standards and beating themselves up when they don’t meet them. A healthy dose of reality and some self-compassion can reduce the stress and pressure you feel and increase your resilience in the face of setbacks.

Kurt accomplished almost every goal he had early in his career.  This kind of amazing success can make you feel invincible.  I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof in combat until I saw people I highly respected getting shot and killed right next to me. 

Reality in small doses is beneficial to pursuing your goals.  However, the quantities of reality that Kurt and I saw on the city streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, were overwhelming for most of my buddies.  I don’t know how well I would have made it through that fight if I didn’t have guys like Kurt to lean on when I was overwhelmed by reality and the enemy.

Your life might change more than you can imagine

This is why you must be flexible. As you work towards your goals, you WILL encounter unexpected obstacles on the road to your dreams.  Sometimes, these obstacles are overwhelming.  But often, the challenges are also opportunities in disguise.

In either case, being willing to change and adapt will help you avoid feeling like a failure when things don’t go as planned. Instead, we can view these changes as opportunities for growth and learning.

Kurt became a mentor to me.  By his example, he helped me manage my unrealistic expectations. It wasn’t always easy, but with friends like Kurt to help keep me grounded, it was possible to achieve success without losing my mind in the process.

If you don’t have a Kurt Smith in your life, I strongly encourage you to find one. Just look for a guy or gal who has a few months of experience with the goal that you are striving to accomplish.  They can give you some practical advice along the way.  They can also remind you to Be Careful What You Ask for, or You Might Get It.

Listen to my recent podcast conversation with Kurt where we go down memory lane and talk about our time in Somalia together.

Further reading

Discipline vs. Drive

Angela Fuller displayed the drive and discipline to make a remarkable recovery from her spinal injuries.

It’s not the fight that matters

The strongest force on the battlefield is always motivated by love just like the toughest opponent in a fight, will always give their best out of...