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One way to enjoy the ride - celebrate surprise!

I think that one aspect of living gracefully is to appreciate the steady stream of events (large and small, positive and negative) that make up a lifetime. At the meditation center I attended years ago they taught that the present is all we have - the future hasn't happened yet, and the past is over, so enjoying what's happening now is a key to being happy [1]. This is a variation on the "stop and smell the roses" theme, and it makes sense to me.

Trouble is, when I'm under stress, I find appreciating what's happening in the moment to be hard. For example, as I'm building my consulting practice I experience a mixture of frightening an exhilarating experiences, and many of the former get in the way. It's the old "journey vs. destination" idea - focus too much on the latter, you forget to live fully [2].

So part of my personal process is figuring out ways to (as Patricia Ryan Madson calls it in Improv Wisdom) "enjoy the ride" [3]. Unfortunately, for some of us it's just not straightforward. How do we go about appreciating the moment? It's a huge question, but one thing that helps me is savoring surprise. After all, what good is staring something new if it doesn't result in at least a few surprises?

This hit me on the head Friday when I got an unexpected envelope from a reader in Minnesota, USA. Inside were a handful of the Pentel Forte mechanical pencils I love (he read about them in this post), along with a lovely note thanking me for this blog. Man did that lift my spirits! It also got me thinking about the value of surprise - both receiving and creating it.

Let me finish with a few tips around surprise. I'd also very much like to hear your comments on this, e.g.,
  • What tricks do you have for enjoying the ride?
  • Have you had any recent surprises you've celebrated?

Be open to surprise

To enjoy surprises we have to be aware of them. Otherwise, we won't notice them. I think this is one way that a system like Getting Things Done contributes - getting the daily noise under control lets us tune in better to what we're experiencing. Hmmm. I wonder - How about a course on Surprise Training?

I also think appreciating surprise depends on a second element: interpretation. Like any experience, our perspective determines what it means to us. Naturally some surprises aren't positive, but I've sometimes been able to "spin" an event mentally into a positive thing. Absurdity loves being acknowledged.

Celebrate surprise

I like stopping for a moment to celebrate welcome surprises. It's a chance to slow down and appreciate these important events. I've tried three ways of doing this. First, I have a "surprise wall" where I put notes and cards from readers, and art and messages from my daughter [4]. Second, I highlight surprise emails (see Use Gmail's "star" to highlight your good news). Finally, I sometimes record them using in my journal (I use a "DelightfulSurprise" tag in My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM).

Plant seeds

Fostering surprise is like writing letters - you have to plant seeds to get something to grow. For example, I reached out about six months ago to friends and family to announce my new job direction. As a result, I got two surprise calls last week from two regional colleges looking for faculty productivity consulting. Neat!

Another thing is to look for ways to pleasantly surprise others. My current favorite: When I was consulting last week in Florida, I picked up a bunch of NASA swag - stickers, pens, etc. - which I've been gleefully passing out. The look on someone's face when they get a cool gift is a real heart-warmer.

Other applications of surprise

Creating surprise goes beyond this, though. For example, I work to include surprises in my workshops, including physical ones like door prizes (everyone loves getting a Super Spy Night Pen for bed-side capture) and mental ones (like the idea that multitasking decreases IQ more than smoking pot [5]). (See more great presentation tips from Kathy Sierra's article A few more Presentation How To's.)

Unexpected results of tuning in

Finally, being open to experiences like surprises can add unexpected value and perspective to our lives. In fact, many of my favorite books are stories by someone who got surprised, then followed it up and shared the results. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Freakonomics are two nice examples. I also love the canonical surprise story Twenty-Five Years of Post-it Notes


Reader Comments (4)

I try to recapture lost moments - e.g. walking between my car and the office. Usually we're not "there" - we're thinking of something else. And quite often there are little surprises, like birds flying past, that you would have missed if you weren't paying attention.

May 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Thanks, Richard. To operationalize this, I guess I'd get back to my [ transitions | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/12/transitions-secret-ingredient-to.html ] idea: Notice when I'm between, and tune in a bit.

Thanks for reading.

May 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I like quotes and found this one on the website of Oce I think it's appropriate.

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.
That's why they call it 'present'

Liked your post as usual


May 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohan DHaeseleer

Thanks for the great quote, Johan. I appreciate your reading!

May 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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