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Surprise! Shock Yourself into Creating Memorable Art & Good Word-of-Mouth

Delightful surprise: the heart of memorable art & business.

Show Me the Delight!: 3 Cases

Show Me the Delight!: 3 Cases

1. Maggie, a designer and artist, walked down 14th Street to take a yoga class before heading to the firm she works for. Taitui bag and Prana yoga mat balanced on her right shoulder and under her right arm respectively, her legs shimmying automatically between the urban herds, she tried to keep her mind focused on an encaustic painting that kept bugging her. The painting had unfolded bit by bit, and she trusted following her instincts. But it looked incoherent. Something missing or something wrong. What? The azure background? The bumpy clay bits? What held it togeth-


"Hey, Maggie! Sorry about that." Alex, the adorable geek she'd seen a few times last year and then faded away.

"Hey, Alex."

"What's up?"

She pointed to her yoga mat and her watch and grinned. "Gotta run."

Within minutes he vanished again. Some guys are like that.

She stood there like a post the herd had to move around. Then she looked down at her feet. Something the size of a large toothbrush. But fleshy. Gray skin. Blue dots. A lizard. A lizard? Here?

She stooped down, tuned out the morning crowd, and gazed. The slick, tough skin at the tiny jaw. Rubber fingers the color of bone. The dimply ridges that peppered his back. And the blue moons, azure to be exact, that lined his back.

She'd have no trouble memorizing the details. Something in the lizard shape would hold the painting - its patches and hues and textures - together.

2. It's 1969. Sacramento, California. Donald, a record store owner, walks into a department store to buy a pair of Levi's. The store doesn't have its size. It's California. The place that harbors rebellious youth - and those who want to appear like rebellious youth by wearing Levi's. Why doesn't this store in this state at this time have his size?

That simple surprise gave Donald an idea: Sell Levi's at his record store. The idea flopped. But when he sold tons of on-hand Levi's at a huge discount, he and his wife opened a store devoted solely to Levi's - the only store for blue jeans only. Anywhere. The name? They played off the then-trendy Generation Gap phrase floating around: The Gap. Donald Fisher's response to that negative surprise led to billions of dollars in profit and over 3,000 stores nationwide to date.

3. Opening scene: A guy gets a house-sitting, dog-sitting gig. Nice house. Five dogs of various breeds. And a fridge fully stocked with ample Bud Light. The owner's parting words: "They're really smart. They'll do whatever you tell 'em. Oh! And there's a ton of Bud Light in 'fridge."

Next series of scenes: Guy opens door to beautiful women and men coming into house for a party. A Dalmatian stands on hind legs carrying a tray of beer. A Chihuahua, with waiter's bow tie and also on hind legs, winks at a woman across the room. A Pug dj's. And so on.

Closing scene: party's over. Disheveled guy passes by the dogs with trash bag while dogs play poker around a table - mirroring the classic shlock paintings together known as "Dogs Playing Poker" commissioned, incidentally, in 1903 to sell cigars.

That ad became a favorite during the 2011 Super Bowl.


Delightful surprise is at the heart of memorable art, stories, and advertising. Not surprise for shock value. Surprise for delight value.

Being open to delightful surprise. Every. Single. Day. That's a practice worth my time. And worth yours if you're an artist, designer, writer, advertising genius, or anyone who has customers or clients.

The Journal of Economic Psychology published a study in 2003 on how surprise induces word-of-mouth (still, the best agent for sales).

According to the study's authors, people are prone to remember what they purchase or a service they receive when they've been surprised. They're more likely to memorize sensory details from the experience. AND they're more prone to talk about the purchase or service to others when they've been surprised - positively or negatively. Also known as good ol' word-of-mouth.

Consider your own experience. What do you remember most and talk about from the films you see or the books you read or the people you hire?

Entrepreneur/coach/consultant: When was the last time you delightfully surprised a client or customer? Sincerely? Just out of what you do and who you are?

Artist/writer/designer: When was the last time you let yourself be delightfully surprised by some small thing or moment or purchasing experience that prompted a useful idea you followed through on?

Both: Do you notice little perceptual incongruities? A lizard corpse on a Manhattan sidewalk? Or do you walk right on by, the day's offerings of surprises whizzing by like a subway?


Two weeks ago at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico. : A doctor-fiction writer. A geologist-novelist. Photographers. A D.H. Lawrence Fellow. A fabrics designer. A writer-turned-design-artist. Other writers.

Two creatives conduct a human camera experiment to induce surprise & serendipity.

Paired off outdoors as human ‘cameras' & ‘photographers.' They each have a question or query or conundrum related to their respective creative projects. They keep the question or query to themselves, but the pairs attune themselves intuitively to each other. Then, the "camera" with the question closes her eyes while the partner leads the camera by voice and hands to a spot.

"Camera"'s eyes still closed, the partner positions the camera's face just so - before a license plate, a garden of raked gravel, a close up of sage bark. When the partner presses the camera's head, the camera opens her eyes for as long as the hand holds the head-shutter.


Five exposures each. Among those five, almost guaranteed, there will be some serendipitous and surprising connection between the creative query and what was seen in a flash. That connection leads to a new scene, a new pair of photographs, the trigger for a collage, or the solution to a design problem.

An exercise designed to prime the mind for surprise - and to collaborate in mutual cognitive and aesthetic surprise. (Drop in at A Hut of Questions this week for pics from the experience.)

What's the advantage of being surprised regularly?

Shortly after a delightful surprise, people tend to experience more intensely positive emotions the next time they're in a similar situation. Positive emotions prime the mind for creative problem-solving and execution.

So, advantage #1: Your mind might become more regularly flexible, coming up with more solutions to problems - rather than just freaking out.

Advantage #2: As an artist or entrepreneur, you remember what people talk about when it comes to memorable films, art, stories, poetry ("No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" - Robert Frost, "The Poem Takes a Form"), and business. Being surprised. In film or fiction, that surprise can be positive or negative. In your business, you hope it's positive.

Try one of these four things today or tomorrow:

Love beauty in all the wrong places. There is magnificent beauty in a dead lizard corpse. A strange beauty in dying daffodils. Keep an eye and ear out for unexpected beauty, and you'll cultivate a strong surprise muscle.

Play, "What Doesn't Belong?" Notice perceptual anomalies. Strange juxtapositions. When in Taos, I went behind our adobe meeting room that looks onto the ancient Taos Pueblo (the United States' oldest formed city) to see what I'd find. Among some sagebrush, I found a Bud Light bottle, empty and with the lid still on it. I brought it, a sage branch, a blue rubbery patch, and a dried leaf in. I put them together in the middle of the meeting room. "How do these connect?" Someone saw patterns in shape. Someone, in texture. "These two are buds of different sorts," someone said.

The human mind instantly finds connections to make things belong. But notice, too, what doesn't belong. The oddity. The little girl with a mustache. The dry cleaner's on a residential street. It's what doesn't belong to our fixed expectations that often startles us into insightful surprise.

Log a day's surprises. Do it. Take your Moleskine or Action Cahier, and log all the things that people say or that you see or hear or taste or feel or think that surprise you. That very deliberate act might bring up a disturbing surprise: that you're often not surprised. And for a creative aspirant anything, not being surprised isn't an option. So start surprising yourself!

Stick a lizard in it. If your approach to a project - your own or a client's - is simply stale, stick a lizard in it. (It worked for Geico - although they officially stuck a gecko in their ads and suddenly made their company's awkward name cute and clever). If the experiment fails, so what? You can try another draft. But the lizard - or whatever random object or image that comes up - can jolt you out of your Manhattan bustle approach to getting things done, predictably.

Drop in:
What do you do to keep being surprised in your work and creative life? Can you think of other examples of how the element of surprise often makes among the most memorable lines from a book or film or the most memorable experience in commerce? I'd love to hear your responses and experiences.

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