Why You Should Surprise People Sometimes

Remember that weird feeling when you’re in 5th grade and you see your teacher at the grocery store, just picking out bananas like a normal human? And it’s really strange because she doesn’t belong at the grocery store. She belongs in math class. Like, what’s she doing here?

Or you see your mean, yelling gym coach hug his crying daughter in the parking lot after school, wipe her tears, and bend down to tie her shoes. Wow, he can also be kind?

When we think of goofball Jimmy who wears a bowtie and suspenders, we think he’s a clown looking for attention. And when we see Hector, the science nerd wearing a bowtie and suspenders we think he’s an eccentric intellectual. When Gertie, the class valedictorian, sits quietly alone for lunch we think she is ruminating on her world peace essay. But when Jackson, the terrorist of 6th grade, sits alone, we think he’s planning his next nasty trick.

I have a friend who works at the bank drive-through window. We laugh and tell jokes. She gives biscuits to my dogs. She’s a great friend. But I saw her in the cereal isle the other day and for a full three seconds I blinked and all I could think was, “I know this person! I like her, but who is she?

It’s both surprising and confusing when people confound our expectations of them. When we see people out of place or out of character doing things we don’t expect of them. People often fulfill our usual expectations of them. We don’t get to see our taxi driver play saxophone in his blues band, and we don’t get to see our boss read bedtime stories to her children.

We seek predictability in others and try to be predictable ourselves. Which is why when we get invited to a barbecue, we hate to say no. Keeping social harmony relies on our own willingness and ability to allow others to reliably predict what we’re going to do. Social consistency keeps the peace.

But sometimes it’s good to surprise people. Sometimes it’s good to bust out something new, something different, something unexpected. It’s not only how we grow, it’s how we develop others’ expectations of what we’re capable of.

You may likely be aware of the small ways in which we can change our environment and surprise and delight ourselves. Driving a different way to work, for example, will likely make you more present and attuned to your environment. Varying your routines can achieve the same effect.

So long as we fear vulnerability, we play it safe and stop ourselves from exploring.
– Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, authors of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected

In order to reframe the expectations others have for us, we need to surprise them in delightful ways. Here are a couple ways you can engineer surprise from Luna and Renninger:

  • Initiate an activity in which the outcome is uncertain. Invite a colleague to dinner you don’t know very well. Or better, invite a small group of people unlikely to know each other. Recently we attended a dinner for twelve hosted by friends who were the only couple who knew everyone at the table. It was a fun and memorable night.
  • Delight someone by over-delivering. Tell her you will empty the dishwasher, then also clean out the fridge. Say you’ll prepare the slides, then actually deliver them rehearsed in the meeting.

Workplaces where managers actively encourage experimentation, and lead by experimenting themselves, make us feel more comfortable with being imperfect, with taking chances, with making mistakes. These are the kind of leaders who make us feel like we can be ourselves.

By embracing and engineering surprise you can make our whole world richer. You can inspire wonder, connection, vulnerability, growth, and creativity.
– Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger

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