Tomorrow, first hour in the morning, when you will be in your office elevator with your cup of coffee in your hand you will encounter Richard Branson. He will ask you:
“Hey, how are you doing?”
How you will react? Did you expect that surprise? If you had expected it, would your reaction be different?
The recent Christmas ad of Barnes & Noble starring the legendary Tony Bennet and in vogue Lady Gaga is titled You Never Know Who You’ll Meet.
For the generations that might have not heard about him, Tony Bennett is the man Frank Sinatra once acknowledged as the king, the “real” best singer of his generation. I had the opportunity to see Tony Bennett live and even to be in his close proximity, by chance, when after concerting in Perugia, Italy, he was in a shop asking curiously about the different kinds of cheese exposed there.
Since then I am fascinated by his attitude towards life and learning at his age of 89:
“I paint every day and I’ve still got my voice. I’m in good health and I’m still learning. I heard somebody being asked once if they were going to retire and they said ‘retire to what?’ That’s how I feel.”
Probably this attitude determined letting himself surprised in this highly rewarding artistically and financially, yet unlikely collaboration between two distant generations and music genres. This year, his “Cheek To Cheek” album, together with Lady Gaga won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, being number #1 on both the Dance/Electronic and Jazz Album Charts in the same year.
Also, I was surprised to learn that there is a rising science on surprise, a lot of research onto the subject being already done within the disciplines of behavioral psychology and neurosciences.
“Surprises point us to dangers, opportunities, and new information,” said LeeAnn Renninger, co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.
“Research shows that surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent, which explains why we love positive surprises and hate negative surprises.”
Tania Luna, the other co-author of the book gives here an enlightening speech on the specifics of our behavior when faced to a surprise.
Of course, we don’t like all surprises. But what is a surprise? “An emotion arising from a mismatch between an expectation and what is actually observed or experienced” (Ekman P., Davidson R. J.,1994. The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Surprise has been identified as one of the six basic, universal emotions, as it is associated with a distinct bodily reaction over widely divergent cultures. It is the emotional response yielded when one receives information that does not cohere with one’s current representations. As such, surprise leads one into a cycle of questioning and, possibly, discovery.
So if surprise is how we feel when certain conditions are met, what are the mechanisms behind eliciting those conditions? Because if we can decode those mechanisms, we can create surprises, and ensure that they are pleasant. For that, I will explore this from the perspective of learning, which is the closest to my professional experience, but the mechanisms can be heavily applied in marketing, customer experience, sales, customer education, leadership, management, employee engagement.
What role surprises play in learning?
According to research, novelty seems to promote memory. Living in an attention economy, when transferring knowledge or trying to influence, we should start any learning endeavor with a surprise as an attention grabber.
Surprise and novelty underlie core intrinsic motivations that allow organisms to acquire useful knowledge and skills in the absence of explicit instruction and externally supplied rewards and penalties.
Surprise plays a key role in theories of classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning. This idea that an organism learns only when events violate its expectations, that is, when the organism is surprised. Progress also is linked to surprise, as those of you who are going to the gym or making any kind of physical training know already, that you have to surprise regularly your body with new exercises, new routines from time to time. Otherwise, progress won’t show up!
Watch an example on surprises applied in learning, fighting to the boredom that we all experienced when flights are airborne:
The Head of People at Google, described in his book Work Rules, that after the newness and excitement of all the great perks in the Google environment (endless swimming machines, micro kitchens, colorful bikes, free sushi, etc.) wear off, engagement can drop unless the employee takes proactive steps to consciously choose mindfulness and gratitude.
If we define mindfulness as “the awareness of events and potentialities within an environment” we all may win from more attention to novelty and unusual patterns in our systems, as unexpected good experiences might appear in our lives.
I have read here about the experiment of surprise journaling in science, self-improvement and innovation. Noticing the moment of surprise, why it was surprising and the learning out of it can help us to lower the bar of how is felt the experience of “unexpectedness” and become better prepared for further surprises. Surprise is actually something that will happen in spite of our efforts to eliminate it, as uncertainties and risks conditions are part of life on Earth. Becoming rigid and stable, in fact, is no way to adapt to change; however, encouraging diversity and possibility through interactions in dynamic ways and in dynamic spaces drive to a better way to deal with a constantly changing world.
How organizations can benefit from designing surprises? See here how a bank has designed such surprises for its customers:
Airbnb is a business designed to produce surprises and this company is disrupting the hotel industry. Every time when you take an accommodation with Airbnb you are expecting a surprise as for sure you will not receive a standard hotel room with a fake smile staff. With Airbnb you can make connections with real people, locals who can share with you some of the most exquisite experiences that you could never receive from a hotel or a normal travel agency.
The good news is we can design ourselves our own travels as sources of surprises if we seek at least novelty and learning in an aware mode. Because, you know, You Never Know Who You’ll Meet, here on LinkedIn, in your life or even in yourself.
Happy holidays and a prosperous 2016 with many valuable connections that you will meet!