The Benefit of No Expectations
Quick! What’s the best travel movie ever? Before Sunrise, Roman Holiday, um The Beach?
My favorite is probably Yes Man, a mostly forgettable 2008 film in which a troubled Jim Carrey vows to say “yes” to everything. But it warrants mention for the scene where he and Zooey Deschanel do an “eeny meeny miny moe” thing and buy tickets aboard whatever plane is taking off next.
They end up in Lincoln, Nebraska.
What ensues may be the most fun travel experience ever shown on the big screen. Carrey and Deschanel goof off with oversized phones at the tiny Telephone Pioneer Museum, go skeet shooting, don corn-head hats and face paint at an Nebraska/Oklahoma football game, and get stuck in a barn. An arrest by TSA agents at the airport notwithstanding, they have a fantastic time.
What better travel lesson can a film possibly offer? Say “yes” as much as you can (even to two tickets to Cornhusker Central) — and go not with low expectations, but with no expectations.
I saw this credo in action recently while traveling with a couple dozen millennials on a train across the U.S. As luck would have it, the sleeper hit of the weeklong trip was Omaha, another Nebraska hotspot. My fellow travelers and I walked the cobbled streets of Old Town, practiced yoga at local studios, visited painted grain elevators, biked to Malcolm X’s birth site, mingled with soccer players soaking in a tub, and drank a Bud in a dive bar straight out of the ‘70s.
“I never knew Omaha was like this,” was something I heard the rest of the trip. Despite time spent in headliner cities like San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and D.C., Omaha left the biggest impression.
This hardly surprised me. When you’re on the road, the most memorable experiences happen when you’ve thrown your expectations out the window. This doesn’t mean you should deliberately pick places you think will be boring; it simply means that you should be “open” to whatever, wherever you go.
Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who spoke about the human tendency toward optimism at a TED event, noted that “some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations… If we are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy.” But au contraire, mon frère. “It’s a good theory – but it’s wrong,” she says. “Research shows…people with high expectations tend to feel better.”
I guess that’s how some successful athletes or politicians say they can will success in the same way an NBA player like Kobe Bryant can see the three-pointer-shot swish before the ball even leaves his fingertips.
But travel’s not really like that. It plays out much more subtly.
A 20-something Portlandia local recently told me that her travels often come up short – that she never seems to find “authentic experiences.” Her example was a quest to find write-home-worthy breakfast tacos in Austin that had gone astray thanks to a local’s recommendations.
The problem, I told her, lies in setting up an experience with such a win/lose scenario. The tacos are either good and tasty, or they’re not. There’s no in between.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Instead, I suggested she follow a recommendation to explore a neighborhood in Austin, perhaps even by bike, to see what’s there, and maybe find some tacos. If that’s the goal, you’ve already “won.”
The last time I viewed travel as some sort of Greco-Roman wrestling match was on my first visit to Thailand nearly 20 years ago. After a year living in Vietnam, I needed a break from street hassle, crazy traffic, maybe even the noodles. I began my two-week Thai vacation armed with the highest of expectations and despite the elephant treks in Chang Mai and glittering Bangkok temples (or the con-artist tuk-tuk drivers), I didn’t love it. At all.
After resigning myself to the fact that Thailand just wasn’t what I had expected, I said to myself: “Thailand, you beat me. I can’t win this trip.”
As soon as I threw my expectations out the window, and started appreciating the country for what it was, I realized I was having a great time.
Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.