The difference between an expectation and a goal is significant. A goal is a target that originates from your perceived potential, but your current capabilities have not yet allowed you to accomplish it. On the other hand, an expectation is a target that you believe will be reached. This implies that you either have the skills to get there already, or you are certain that you can acquire them along the way. The difference between these two concepts may seem subtle, but there is an important point to take away from making this distinction. When you have an expectation that you’ll reach a particular target, you set yourself up to be unprepared for the mistakes, setbacks, and failures that will often stand in your way. You’re expecting to reach your target, so there’s no reason to prepare for them. When you set a goal, you know there is work to be done, and you are expecting and prepared for all of the challenges you might face to get there.

Perhaps the most important difference between an expectation and a goal is how you evaluate the outcome. When you fall short of a goal, you might get upset, but you don’t dwell on it. Instead, you can look objectively at the results: How or why did you fail? What did you not prepare for? Could this have been avoided? In what areas have you succeeded and made prog- ress? What have you learned? What do you need to do next?

The answers to those questions immediately make you better not only at achieving your goals, but at setting goals in the future. When it comes to expectations, your evaluation tends to be black and white. If you fall short, you failed; if you succeed, it doesn’t make sense to celebrate because you just did what was expected. Only when you exceed your expectations do you experience any amount of satisfaction, but it’s still not proportionally as bad as you feel when you fail. It is common for poker players to achieve major milestones, such as winning their first tournament, and shortly after- wards think nothing of it. This failure to give themselves any credit creates a major deficit in their sense of accomplishment, and ultimately wastes an opportunity for them to increase their confidence. Plus, since they’re not get- ting any positive reinforcement for all of their hard work, they might even grow disillusioned with the game. Expectations have a way of sucking the life out of poker. Setting goals makes recognizing progress an inherent part of the process, and can elicit feelings of self-satisfaction, pride, and renewed passion for the game. And in a sort of cyclical fashion, these feelings can then motivate you to accomplish new and even higher-reaching goals.

If you find yourself not being able to decipher whether something you want is a goal or an expectation, look for the word “should.” If you say, “This shouldn’t bother me” you actually mean, “I expected it not to bother me, but really it does.” If instead you decided to set a goal to not let it bother you, you could then set process-oriented goals to understand, analyze, and correct the reasons why it bothers you. Undoubtedly, the latter scenario is much more productive.

To be clear, expectations are not inherently bad. High expectations have driven many players to great levels of success. However, goals can produce the same outcomes without the negative implications that some- times accompany expectations.

Conflicting Goals

Some players have hidden goals that they unconsciously carry around with them. Unbeknownst to them, these goals can conflict with and stifle their true ambitions. For example, a player’s goals for poker this year might be to make $50,000, learn to beat $2/$4 online, and improve post-flop play. However, they may also have goals to look good, avoid embarrass- ment, and have a lot of fun away from the tables. If looking good is impor- tant to you, it could cause you to make mistakes post flop because you’re trying too hard to outplay someone. Or, you might not work with a coach to avoid the embarrassment of asking for help. If it’s important to you to have fun, what do you do when friends pester you to go out partying with them when you know that to make $50,000 you have to play most Friday nights? These goals are conflicting and can be roadblocks to your success.

Identifying and resolving conflicting goals helps to redirect your focus and motivation on the goals that are most important to you. Conflicting goals can be hard to spot at first, but they tend to emerge when you’re stressed, tilted, overconfident, or when results are poor. To find them, keep track of all the actions, thoughts, or emotions that go against your primary goals, and try to uncover the motivation behind each of them. Here are some examples of conflicting goals and their potential motivations:

  • Your stress may be a result of your impatience with the process of achieving your goals. The conflicting goal is that you want success immediately.
  • Your tilt may be caused by a losing session. The conflicting goal is that you want to show monetary progress every day—you get angry because losing feels like a step backwards.

• When your results are poor on a particular day, you may decide to not play at all and instead do something more enjoyable. The con- flicting goal here is that you always want to be enjoying your job.

Once you’ve identified the goals that conflict with each other, determine which one is more of a priority to you, and direct all of your efforts there. For example, if partying on a Friday night is truly the priority, then you might want to rethink your goal of making $50,000. The benefit of this is that you will not be disappointed and confused when you don’t reach your goal, since you made a conscious and informed decision. On the other hand, if you decide that making $50,000 is the priority, you’ll be able to remind yourself that saying “no” to your friends is an integral part of achieving your true goal. By going through this process with each of your conflicting goals, you will prevent yourself from directing energy and effort toward a goal that doesn’t reflect your true ambitions. Thus, you maximize your ability to reach the goals that truly matter.

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