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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 2): Unexpected

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 2): Unexpected
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

He was dead the whole time! Darth Vader is Luke’s father! She’s his sister and his daughter!

The endings of movies like Sixth Sense, The Empire Strikes Back, and Chinatown — and the stories that lead up to them – stick with us for years and even decades because they trigger a deep psychological reflex: surprise. They come at us out of nowhere (seemingly – repeat viewings tend to reveal dozens of clues) and literally force us to sit up and take notice.

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Psychologists see surprise as something akin to the “fight or flight” reflex. The typical expression associated with surprise – rigid body and widened eyes – signals the mind’s desire for more information. We stop still and take it all in.

Breaking Patterns

In order to be truly unexpected, an idea has to break the preconceived notions and routines that we live our lives by. Trivial changes go unnoticed or, when noted, quickly forgotten. In order to evoke surprise, an idea has to interrupt our established ways of acting or thinking – as the surprise endings of the movies listed above force us to reconsider the meaning of the whole movie. Sixth Sense is a movie about a psychologist’s relationship with a child, up until the very end, when it… isn’t.

Unexpected ideas, then, demand some action from their recipients; they ask us to change our view of the world, or at least some part of it. There is, of course, a danger here – ideas that should be surprising become expected when overused. 9/11 was truly unexpected – and the events of that day will stick with us for a long time. But now that we’ve been on heightened security alert for going on six years, does it surprise anyone to find that the threat level for US flights as I write this is “Orange: High Risk of Terrorist Attacks”? There is no longer any information contained in that statement – it’s always orange. What should be a sticky idea indeed has instead become merely the status quo, the expected.

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Hook ‘Em and Reel ‘Em In

Surprise helps make ideas sticky in two ways. First, it gets our attention – we notice the unexpected in a way we don’t notice the expected. Think of your drive home from work: how many times have you arrived home with almost no recollection of anything you saw on the way? Can you remember what color the car in front of you was? But if a three-car pileup or high speed pursuit should happen to take place, I’ll bet you have something to talk about when you get home!

Second, surprise keeps us engaged. Once we notice something unexpected, we experience a powerful urge to understand it, to integrate it into what we already know. The Heath’s call this “The Gap Theory of Curiosity”, drawing on the work of behavioral economist (didn’t know there were behavioral economists, did you? Surprise!) George Loewenstein, who holds that gaps in our knowledge, once exposed, cause us discomfort and pain.

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We’ve all directly experienced this, of course – I remember well the agony of waiting three whole years to find out if Darth Vader was really Luke’s father. Mystery novels, movie trilogies, serial fiction, and potboilers rely on this need to keep us coming back or turning the pages. The new Harry Potter novel is approximately a million pages long, but you just keep turning and turning, page after page, chapter after chapter, all in a quest to find out “what happens next?”

Using Surprise

Knowing how people react when surprised can help us make our ideas stickier. Knowing that people will pursue a piece of information once it gets their attention, we can “prime the gap” by introducing a surprising fact and promising an explanation. Your local evening news does this all the time, with their teaser commercials during prime time. “Is something in your cabinets killing you? Find out at 11!”

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Priming the gap doesn’t have to be sleazy, though. Imagine a teacher telling their students something surprising to get and keep their attention through the class period. TV news spots are sleazy not because they use surprise, but because they use it in the service of the trivial (if it were really important, what moral right in the world would they have to withhold it? Image “Are terrorists attacking our town right this moment? Find out at 11!”) They trigger our need to know – if Loewenstein is right, they actually intentionally cause us pain – in the service of getting us to sit through a bunch of commercials before finally paying off with a useless, stupid piece that tells us absolutely nothing.

Simply Unexpected

The power of the Heath’s Made to Stick is how the six principles of stickiness interact with each other. No idea need satisfy all six principles, but the more the better, and when two or more principles come together in one idea, they reinforce each other, multiplying the stickiness factor.

Consider, yet again, Einstein’s famous formula. I said last week that the simplicity of Einstein’s formula, summing up one of the great mysteries of the world in 5 symbols E=MC2, made it sticky. But it also made it unexpected – who would have thought that the nature of mass and energy could be summed up so simply? Its simplicity itself was surprising, energizing decades of research in an attempt to prove Einstein was either right or wrong – and then to explore the ramifications of the idea. Scientists are still working on the implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a century later – now that’s sticky!

How have you, or could you, use the unexpected in your own work? It probably won’t surprise you to see me ask you to share your own ideas in the forum — but overlook that and do it anyway.

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

What do I want to do with my life? It’s a question all of us think about at one point or another.

For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it takes a lifetime to figure out.

It’s easy to just go through the motions and continue to do what’s comfortable and familiar. But for those of you who seek fulfillment, who want to do more, these questions will help you paint a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.

1. What are the things I’m most passionate about?

The first step to living a more fulfilling life is to think about the things that you’re passionate about.

What do you love? What fulfills you? What “work” do you do that doesn’t feel like work? Maybe you enjoy writing, maybe you love working with animals or maybe you have a knack for photography.

The point is, figure out what you love doing, then do more of it.

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2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

Think about your past experiences and the things in your life you’re most proud of.

How did those accomplishments make you feel? Pretty darn good, right? So why not try and emulate those experiences and feelings?

If you ran a marathon once and loved the feeling you had afterwards, start training for another one. If your child grew up to be a star athlete or musician because of your teachings, then be a coach or mentor for other kids.

Continue to do the things that have been most fulfilling for you.

3. If my life had absolutely no limits, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

Here’s a cool exercise: Think about what you would do if you had no limits.

If you had all the money and time in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you spend time with?

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These answers can help you figure out what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t mean you need millions of dollars to be happy though.

What it does mean is answering these questions will help you set goals to reach certain milestones and create a path toward happiness and fulfillment. Which leads to our next question …

4. What are my goals in life?

Goals are a necessary component to set you up for a happy future. So answer these questions:

Once you figure out the answers to each of these, you’ll have a much better idea of what you should do with your life.

5. Whom do I admire most in the world?

Following the path of successful people can set you up for success.

Think about the people you respect and admire most. What are their best qualities? Why do you respect them? What can you learn from them?

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You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.[1] So don’t waste your time with people who hold you back from achieving your dreams.

Spend more time with happy, successful, optimistic people and you’ll become one of them.

6. What do I not like to do?

An important part of figuring out what you want to do with your life is honestly assessing what you don’t want to do.

What are the things you despise? What bugs you the most about your current job?

Maybe you hate meetings even though you sit through 6 hours of them every day. If that’s the case, find a job where you can work more independently.

The point is, if you want something to change in your life, you need to take action. Which leads to our final question …

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7. How hard am I willing to work to get what I want?

Great accomplishments never come easy. If you want to do great things with your life, you’re going to have to make a great effort. That will probably mean putting in more hours the average person, getting outside your comfort zone and learning as much as you can to achieve as much as you can.

But here’s the cool part: it’s often the journey that is the most fulfilling part. It’s during these seemingly small, insignificant moments that you’ll often find that “aha” moments that helps you answer the question,

“What do I want to do with my life?”

So take the first step toward improving your life. You won’t regret it.

Featured photo credit: Andrew Ly via unsplash.com

Reference

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