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June 16th, 2020
What is a surprise? Be it positive or negative, it’s our reaction to something unexpected - it is a violation of expectation. The nature of surprise, it’s character and valence has almost nothing to do with what actually unfolds. It has everything to do with what happens beforehand, how we imagine the future, why we imagine it in such a way: we set ourselves up for the way we react to the future, be it a surprise or not.
This imagined future grows from two different roots, and also from both. The kernel of our vision for the future can be emotional, and it can also spring from a thoughtful place, or naturally some combination. It’s most probably always a combination.
But how well integrated is that combination?
When surprise does come our way, is our reaction characterized by emotion or by a thoughtful updating of our ideas regarding what’s going on and how things work?
What does it mean when we experience deep disappointment about the way something has turned out but at the same time the situation makes sense, as though the result is typical. This can be shrugged off as cynicism, but it also illuminates an important decoupling between what we think about a situation and how we feel about it. Hard truths are often so because our emotions are not aligned with what we know – the collision and the discrepancy that we experience within is the difficult part.
Another cynical truism that arises around these concepts is that in order to avoid disappointment, the key is to have low expectations, or none at all. The implication is always that hope is foolish, and dashed expectations are always born of this hope. This combination is asymmetrical in a way that does not benefit us in anyway: we are set up to simultaneously experience dashed hopes and a reinforcement of our cynical understanding of how things work. With such views, we are constantly set up for negative surprise.
But what about the inverse? What about outcomes that make sense but don’t disappoint because they make sense, and are therefore predictable, and outcomes that present pleasant surprises because the result diverges from our expectations – the way we understand the world. A first question might be: is such a view based on negative expectations? Isn’t this a cynical view of the world? Perhaps, but the surprise is that if the cynic were to actually take their own advice, then the asymmetry inverts, and we are left with only upside: either our understanding of the world is further supported, or we are pleasantly surprised with something good. The cynic masquerades as a sort of masochistic, hopeless romantic, pretending to bet perpetually on the underdog odds. But such a cynic and wannabe romantic never actually inhabits the role of that underdog. The underdog is sober about the chances, but endeavors forward regardless….
because the real underdog realizes the possibility of being