The Secret of Mastering your Expectations as a Volunteer

Sofia Jagbrant is an Inner Leadership Coach and 2018 Global Value Champion of the Restless Development Tanzania Hub

Volunteering is a great experience that requires us to really optimize our mental strategies and inner leadership in order to do and be successful. Did you know that the mind is programmed to notice unusual things around us in order to help us to survive? Maybe this explains why I was so tired during my first weeks living in Tanzania that I went to bed at 8pm!

During my years as a Bilateral Associate Expert in the Restless Development Tanzania hub, I was blessed to be working closely with great national and international volunteers. However, volunteers feelings about their placements were sometimes very different.

I met many volunteers like this:


While some felt like this:


Volunteers reacted differently to their placements. They each had different expectations about the outcome of their experience. Some volunteers came with a clear mental image about what their impact would look like, as well how the process would go.

This is very natural since the brain is a prediction machine. It uses what it has seen before from the outside world to make predictions about what can be expected by counting valubles.

For example, we are loaded with traditional images of volunteers helping hungry sad children with grateful eyes. However, there are much fewer images in the mainstream media showing international and national volunteers working together to support young people across the world. I believe this can impact the expectations of being a volunteer.  

Other volunteers came with expectations of growing as a person and be open to learn and try out various ways to create change. Their expectations were rooted in their own learning process and had a wider approach about how change can happen. Despite dealing with similar challenges as the others, they dealt with those in a calmer, less threatening way.

Neuroscience research shows that when you expect something, good or bad, it impacts the activation of brain regions the same as the actual experience would generate in reality. Meeting expectations helps you to feel curious, focused and alert. Unmet expectations create a threat response in the brain which can cause a frustration similar to this:


If you only focus on the end result, such as no more hunger in the world, and expect to be rewarded for your work, you are likely to be frustrated if the outcome is different. Instead, if you expect to grow as a person and are open to various ways to create an impact, and form human connections, you will feel more content with what you are doing and consider challenges as a learning experience rather than a threat. This way, you are more likely to find new ways of creating an impact since you are not locked up by past solutions learnt in another place.

My top advice to managing your expectations:

1. Write down your expectations and have a closer look at them. Ask yourself:

  • How much influence do I have over my expectations and where do they come from?
  • What can I do to reformulate them in a way that helps me on a possibly bumpy road?
  • What mindset will help me to best manage my expectations?

2. When you are about to sleep, imagine yourself with that mindset; calm, flexible, curious, innovative, team player, you name it! It is helping your mind to incorporate it.

3. Find ways of being connected with your own learning and thinking process during your journey, such as writing down a daily reflection journal.

Expect to grow and you will!


Reference: David Rock, Your brain at work

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The Secret of Mastering your Expectations as a Volunteer

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min