The Surprising Art of “Surprises”

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Source: Giphy

I was at my desk in deep thought. I had just finished a warm cup of coffee and my only plan then was to switch to a relaxed playlist on 8tracks. There was nothing special about that day.

But then, my doorbell rang. I had received an envelope from a close friend.

To set context, the only time I received envelopes was the time when my college sent a monthly performance report card to my parents. So, when I saw an envelope — and from a friend — I did not know how to react.

When I opened it, I had a huge smile. It had a travel postcard wrapped up with a beautiful message — asking me to explore, to discover, and to be surprised.

Why are surprises good?

When what happens is not what I expect, I have to rethink my understanding of the world.

Surprises create saliency.

They create moments that break away from the clutter and shift our worldview — even if for a brief movement — in a way that rewires us.

One of the reasons birthdays are the most memorable days of the year is because we associate them with surprises. The rest of the year seems boring — until something happens that takes us by surprise. In life, surprises are generally under-rated.

As we age, time passes quickly — or so we feel. This happens because when we are young, we have a higher number of “newer” experiences, things that take us by surprise, like us a first date, first coffee, first failure e.t.c.

Source: Giphy

These new experiences give us a feeling that we are aging slowly.

As adults, the experience novelty wears off and hence, we feel old (terribly old).

Takeaway #1: Surprise yourself or one day you will die without experiencing anything remarkable.

If I were to nominate the best feeling ever it will be the feeling of getting surprised (for the good).

Putting Surprises To Work

Workplaces are crowded. There are a million tasks at hand and everyone is busy running the show. In general, attention span has gone down significantly and we don’t really know how to build it from the ground up.

Source: Yours truly

So, how do we communicate our best work to a crowd who wants to listen but there are cats and business plans who own their attention? Surprise them.

Have a project in mind? Under promise, over deliver. Don’t satiate expectations because they normalize the effort. Instead, deliver above those expectations. This way, you will surprise people and get their attention when it is needed the most.


Your best resume on a paper is still a resume on a paper. Raghav Haran gives great advice on this: Instead of sending in your resume, show the potential recruiter what you can do for them.

Surprise them with you work — show how you can take the company from A to B.

This works because HR professionals receive thousands of applications every year. The only way to stand out is by engineering surprises. Who would expect a 23 year old to proactively attack a pain point by developing an application that solves it? No one.

That’s the thing with surprises — people don’t expect them.

So next time you want to stand out, or make your relationships work, make sure you can’t be predicted. Don’t let them define you.

Surprise people. And yourself.


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The Psychology Of Backfire Effect

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And Why You Should Know About It.

Everyone has certain set of beliefs and opinions in life. These range from political, social, cultural aspects to every bit mundane stuff of how to and how not to do certain things and how the world should be. These beliefs and opinions are dear to you and no matter what happens, you will protect them from harm.

The internet war

When you come across an opinion in daily life that contradicts your already established view of the world — you go berserk! You enter the this-is-absolute-shit mode. From there on, it’s a crazy ride. Every counter argument / comment from the other side is like fuel to the fire burning inside of you to break other person’s opinion into pieces.

What’s the catch? The person on the other end is on the same journey. Precisely the reason you see long threads of comments of people arguing and posting evidence that they are right and the other person’s opinion is full of shit.

If anyone tries to put force on that shield of yours that protects your opinions, you backfire with a stronger version of that opinion. This might sound strange but it is true.

Think about the last time you were in an argument or debate with someone regarding an opinion of yours. Every time a person would have tried to find a loophole in your idea, you would have backfired with a stronger evidence.

The person on the other side of the table may or may not be right — but that’s not the point.

The point is that that discomfort of someone refuting our beliefs and ideas, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them.

Hence, everyone protects their beliefs like a mother protects her baby. They wouldn’t let ANYONE hurt it. When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

In psychology, this is called the Backfire Effect.

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

There are reasons why it is so difficult to win an argument online:

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

In conclusion: People will never like their opinions challenged unless they absolutely know the other side is in the right. Otherwise, it will just help them strengthen their preconceived notion of how the world works and how it is supposed to work.

So what can all of us —especially people on the internet — try to do instead? Well, as Maria Popova says:

Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind!