Years ago, my sisters and I were traveling around Belgium and ended up in a little town, its name I have long since forgotten. Speaking no Flemish and having no real plans, we followed a sign that looked like it would lead us to a tourism office. Instead, we found ourselves climbing the spiral, stone steps of a dark tower. When we finally reached the top, we carefully opened an old wooden door to reveal a space filled with dozens of huge metal bells ringing out the most hauntingly melodic song I had ever heard. We walked among them in awe, the music vibrating through us. This probably would be a great memory even if we had planned it, but it is so deeply etched into my heart and mind because of one very special factor: surprise. Think of your favorite story to tell from your life. Chances are there is an element of surprise in it.
That’s because, as Surprise authors Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger say, surprise makes you “-er:” happier, angrier, funnier. It intensifies whatever feeling you have. It causes us to be “completely present, wildly curious, expanding our perspectives, and connected with others.” When we are surprised, we feel the most alive.
If that’s not a reason to delve into the science of surprise, I don’t know what is. Tania Luna is the founder of Surprise Industries, a company that creates surprise experiences for individuals and groups, and LeeAnn Renninger has a Ph.D. in psychology, surprise being one of her areas of research. The two met, became fast friends, and the result is Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.
This book is a delightful delve into the world of surprise and unpredictability. A beautiful balance of science and practical tools, this book is a fun package for helping us to improve our lives with creativity. And the authors don’t just tell you about surprise – weaved in throughout the book are surprises they’ve left along the way, from the line-drawn illustrations opening each chapter that house little hidden objects throughout to the subtle examples included in the text that light up your brain just like they tell you surprise does.
The book begins with the science of surprise – what it is and what it does to us. Surprisingly, our reaction to a surprise is predictable. It follows a sequence: “we freeze, try to find an explanation, shift our perspective, and share our experience.” The authors give details on each of these phases including what exactly happens in our brains during this surprise sequence - how the P300 brain wave spikes and directs all of our attentional resources towards the surprise, creating a cognitive burden we must release through sharing. They describe a figurative see-saw with predictability on one end and surprise on the other - too much of the former causing boredom and too much of the latter causing anxiety. We all need a balance of surprise in our lives.
Next the book moves into a carefully crafted argument of the importance of surprise to our lives and why it is increasingly something we need not only to handle, but master. In our rapidly changing and increasingly complicated world, we need to be able to handle the surprising changes - both good and bad - and also create novelty so we don’t fall into stagnation. Handling surprise is all about tolerating ambiguity. People have generally become averse to surprise because it means we aren’t in control; it makes us vulnerable. But, the authors argue, putting yourself in the position of being vulnerable and open to ambiguity and the unexpected, is how we grow. One of the tools they introduce in section two is “Scenario Plan,” in which you diverge on several possible futures for yourself and then devise a plan that is flexible enough to fit any of them. This is a way to find that balance between control and surprise.
In the last two sections of the book the authors provide tools to help you inject more surprise into your life. We can engineer surprise in order to grow, to capture attention, to create something new, and to connect with others. The authors even go so far as to say, “each of us has the capacity and maybe even the responsibility to surprise the world.” Some readers may wish for more concrete, specific examples in the latter half of the book, but, of course, the only way to really engineer surprise is by using one’s creativity. That being said, a few times throughout the book, the authors start an intriguing story as an example, but never reveal the rest so as to not give away their surprise, which falls flat. Nonetheless, in the tools provided in this section, creativity enthusiasts will recognize and enjoy reading about creativity principles like novelty, tolerating ambiguity, tolerating complexity, risk-taking, incubation, iteration, and connection making, but all wrapped up with a pretty surprise bow. For example, one of the tools is to “practice idea mixology” by having diverse experiences and inserting new things into your life so you can make unusual connections.
Surprise is a great introduction to creativity ideas for the novice, and even for those well-versed in the field, it provides the joy of surprise by packaging creativity principles in a novel way as well as sharing some new tools for your back pocket. Reading it allowed me to start noticing surprise everywhere and how people responded to it. The tools they provide are considerations and perspectives that when applied along with your own creativity, can make magic happen.
This book is a fun, light read, even with all the scientific references, and as an added bonus, includes excellent summarizing “cheat sheets” at the end of each chapter, so that with Surprise close at hand, you can make the world a little more surprising. Maybe your favorite story to tell is yet to come - and just a surprise away.
Sara Smith is a writer and educator. Her passions include creativity, community, and learning. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State. Her most recent work, LisTEN: an idea journal, was released this August.