On a fall day, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John wandered by a river looking for historical artifacts. His “head full of the past and its remains,” Thoreau surveyed the landscape and romantically imagined where the area’s Native Americans had once lived, hunted, and feasted. “Here,” he then exclaimed, “stood Tahatawan [a local chieftain]; and there is Tahatawan’s arrowhead.” As Thoreau playfully reached down to pick up what appeared to be an ordinary rock . . . he found that it was, in fact, a perfectly preserved arrowhead.
These kinds of serendipitous occurrences were no rarity for Thoreau; he was known for having an uncanny knack for finding whatever it was he was thinking about and searching for.
This ability wasn’t a matter of mere coincidence, but rather a manifestation of the magnetism of Thoreau’s intentions. “In the long run, we find what we expect,” he said. “We shall be fortunate then if we expect great things.”
When I read a book with pen in hand, I discover (and subsequently underline) more insights within it. The presence of the pen doesn’t change the text, of course, but rather puts me in a more expectant frame of mind, prompting me to notice what might otherwise be passed over.
When someone moves to a new city and expects to find the culture boring and the people rude, that’s exactly what they encounter. When another person moves to the very same place, expecting to find layers of interest and friendly folks, that’s exactly what they encounter, too.
Some say it’s best to keep expectations low, dampening disappointment if they’re not met. But that assumes the outcome will be the same regardless of our anticipations. Instead, in ways both practical and metaphysical, heightened expectations create possibilities unavailable in their absence.
As Thoreau observed, “We find only the world we look for.”