Once upon a time, a client came to us with a challenge we love to hear: “we need more surprise!”
We jumped into our surprise mobile (i.e. NYC subway) and headed to their office, expecting to find a sea of gray cubicles and florescent lighting. Instead, we walked into an sunny, color-splattered, plant-covered loft, brimming with lively collaboration. This was not how we had pictured surprise deficiency. We asked our client why she thought the problem was a lack of surprise, and she told us that people were burnt out. She was convinced that all they needed was more excitement.
When we began to interview the team and explore the company culture, we discovered something unexpected: they didn’t have too little surprise; they had too much!
Feedback from managers was inconsistent and unpredictable. Policies were constantly changing. Payroll was occasionally late. Employees were in a constant state of anxiety.
Ever since this realization, I began to look at work, relationships, and my own life differently. A long time ago, I hated surprise. Then I fell in love with it and wanted more and more of it everywhere. Now, my goal is to find balance on the Surprise Seesaw. Here’s what I mean:
- When we have too much surprise (uncertainty, change, unpredictability), our pre-frontal cortex works overtime trying to feel secure by predicting the future. This causes anxiety. (Incidentally, it’s also why lobotomies produce a calming effect – patients can no longer obsess about the future).
- When we have too little surprise, we experience hypostress (i.e. boredom), the pain of not enough stimulation, variety, and excitement.
The problem is that many of us walk around with our Surprise Seesaws out of whack. We have too much surprise in some areas and not enough surprise in others. If you are feeling either anxious or stuck in routine, it may be time for a surprise redistribution: add safety to the areas of life or work that feel overwhelmingly unpredictable and add unpredictability to the areas that feel overwhelmingly safe.
I’d love to hear: how is your Surprise Seesaw doing and how do you find balance?