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The Surprise Journal | A Practice In Creativity

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As we enter the final days of Summer, we're taking a break this week and sharing some popular articles from the archives. Enjoy!

Ever notice how a moment of surprise can lead you to a change in perspective? Perhaps your manager has been unavailable for a few weeks, leaving you to wonder whether you did something “wrong”... only to be offered a promotion at your next meeting. The time that your manager has been “avoiding” you has actually been spent making preparations for you to assume your new role.

Sometimes the surprise is not as welcomed---perhaps you are waiting for the bus and are splattered as a child jumps right into a nearby puddle, leaving you wet, cold, and disgruntled.

In either case, the element of surprise, your assumptions, and how you deal with the unexpected can tell you quite a bit about yourself. If you were to take note of each unexpected incident, imagine what you could learn from them.

Today, we invite you to try a practice developed by Julia Galef, President of the Center for Applied Rationality: keeping a surprise journal. It’s pretty easy to implement---simply start writing down whenever something surprises you. You can use a traditional journal or whatever note-taking device you prefer. The key is to write down not only what surprises you, but why.

Galef’s experience with keeping a surprise journal has led her interest in “scientific integrity,” or the willingness to examine reasons why your theories might be incorrect. In her Slate article, she remarks that we are wired to expect outcomes that prove our theories and assumptions rather than disprove them. This is one of the reasons why the surprise journal has been so effective. When a mistake is made or an incorrect assumption is disproved, reframing it as a “surprise” softens the blow, allowing the journaler a safe space for exploring the incident and how to make changes for the next time.

In a recent article on Fast Company, Galef shares:

"People generally don’t want to give in to evidence that they might be wrong—and I include myself here—because it is stressful to admit it, even to yourself," she says. "It feels like acknowledging that you are stupid or that you have bad judgment or that you are less capable in some way. So of course it’s an unpleasant experience and we train ourselves to avoid it."

Let’s explore how a surprise journal can help you during a job search, perhaps leading you to discover more fitting opportunities and execute better plans. For example, imagine rereading a job listing for a position you believe you’re perfect for, and seeing “cover letter required.” You’ve already sent your application and to your chagrin, you did not include one. Had you not reread the listing and been surprised by that requirement, you might assume you never received a call because they hadn’t received your application, they never read your resume, or they already selected an internal candidate before you even applied.

By taking note of this surprise, you can make a small change to your job application strategy. You can start reading each listing thoroughly (more than once) and make a checklist of all the required documents. Check them off as you complete and send them.

The surprise journal can also provide insights to those who are well into their careers. In social impact careers, it is essential to avoid making assumptions about the needs of the population you serve. Use your surprise journal to temper your beliefs about what the population needs and avoid doing harm when you want to do good.

To start your surprise journal, follow these simple steps:

  1. Write down the incident that surprised you
  2. Ask yourself why it was surprising
  3. Reflect on what it tells you

If you notice something surprising and can’t quite figure out what it “means” just yet, that’s okay. Continue thinking about it and jot down new insights as they come to you.

By keeping your note-taking device with you at all times, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to record your surprises as they come. From time to time, you may want to go back through your notes and assess the changes you implemented as a result of your findings.

By Victoria Crispo

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