Balance the Surprise Seesaw

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?



  1. Steve Nelson

    The surprise balancefinding a way to surf through the extremes of boredom and anxietyreminds me of the balance of skill level vs challenge level that result in the flow state, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He also specifically calls out boredom and anxiety as results of an imbalance of these factors. That got me wondering if Csikszentmihalyi had addressed surprise specifically as a factor in the flow state.In his book “Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, his prescription for enhancing curiosity and interest includes:

    The first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest, that is, the allocation of attention to things for their own sake. With age most of us lose the sense of wonder, the felling of awe in confronting the majesty and variety of the world, yet without awe life becomes routine, creative individual are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown.

    So how can interest and curiosity be cultivated, assuming that you feel the desire to do so? Some specific advice may help.

    Try to be surprised by something every day. It could be something you see, hear, or read about. Stop to look at the unusual car parked a the curb, taste the new item on the cafeteria menu, actually listen to your colleague at the officeLife is nothing more than a stream of experience-the more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer your life will be.

    - Try to surprise at least one person every day. Instead of being you predictable self, say something unexpected, express an opinion that you have not dared to reveal, ask a question you wouldnt ordinarily ask.

    -Write down each day what surprised you and you surprised others. Writing them down so that you can relive them in recollection is one way to keep them from disappearing, and after a few weeks, you may begin to see a pattern of interest emerging in the notes, one that may indicate some domain that would repay explore in depth.

    -When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.

    (Chapter 14, pp 346-347)

    • As always, your comments are more insightful than the post itself! And yes! You’re right about Csikszentmihalyi and flow. I’ve got to get my hands on that book.

      I’m suspecting that the key to most things in life is balance. It’s not a very exciting realization (balance, by definition, isn’t particularly exciting), but it is useful nonetheless.

      Incidentally, Csikszentmihalyi is the only person I’ve ever had a “celebrity panic” moment around. Once upon a time I met him at a positive psychology conference, and all I could think to say was: “I love that you are wearing sandals.”

      • My favorite part about Csikszentmihalyi is that he is a climber.”Whenever a climber leaves the known paths, he enters an area without rules or routines to rely on. The only advice comes from deep inside the self, and hopefully the motivation is true. At such moments, the mountaineer is creative, not merely a participant in sport. This creativity manifests itself in styles of climbing or in exploration of unknown areas. It is impossible to cram mountaineering into a sport framework. To me there are as many ways to experience the mountains as there arc real and passionate emotional bonds with the mountains. If you allow my earlier sarcasm, permit me a momentary contact with the mystical. I conclude that mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience.” Voytek Kurtyka, the consummate alpinist/artist/philosopher in The Art of Suffering

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