Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 2): Unexpected

By | August 15, 2007
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.

Learning how to live a stress free life may seem impossible, but the truth is that there are specific things you can do to begin eliminating sources of stress.

No, it doesn’t look like a made-for-television movie. No, it doesn’t look like something only people with extra time and money can do. It looks like your life—but without any self-created stress triggers.

Here are 11 ways to help you live a stress-free life:

1. Stop Overanalyzing Situations That Haven’t Happened

The first step to living a stress-free life is to stop overanalyzing imaginary scenarios. It’s easy to spend time in the world of worst-case scenarios. People tend to cultivate this world for one of two reasons.

First, because if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then it won’t surprise you when it happens. Second, if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then you can do everything in your power to control the universe so the worst case never happens.

If that’s really the world you want to cultivate, then become a professional risk assessor. If not, then ask yourself how you are benefiting from continuing to live that way.

Does it make you feel better about yourself and your life? Does it make you want to leap out of bed in the morning, eager to embrace the worst-case scenario? Does it bring you joy or fulfillment?

If your answer to these three questions is no, then stop living in the future and bring yourself back into the present.

2. Don’t Take on Other People’s Problems

The whole advantage of other people having problems is that they aren’t your problems. When you frequently take on other people’s problems, you get into the habit of enabling.

Let’s get crystal clear about the definition of enabling: enabling is the art of continuing to take responsibility for other people, thereby disallowing their personal responsibility[1].

It is of no service to other people to take on their problems because they can’t/won’t/don’t know how to fix the problem.

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It is of service to empower others to take responsibility for themselves and their lives, to encourage, teach, and motivate others to address their own problems. So stop enabling, and start empowering.

3. Get Present in the Moment

Being present in the moment involves being in your body and feeling your feelings—two things that lots of folks actually don’t know how to do.

Ask yourself these two questions: What does fear feel like in your body? What are you afraid of?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you probably aren’t present in the moment. Being present involves vulnerability, humility, and openness[2].

How to live a stress free life by being present

The past and the future stop being so relevant and intriguing when you’re able to get in your body and feel your feelings. When you can do these two things, you actually want to be in the present moment.

To get started, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and watch your stress levels drop. Then, try these tips: How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying.

4. Focus on What You Have, Not What You Don’t

The easiest way to stop focusing on what you don’t have is by not watching TV commercials. Marketing teaches us to focus on what we don’t have, and advertising campaigns spend millions of dollars convincing us that we must have what we don’t yet have.

Can you think of a marketing campaign that teaches you to enjoy what you already have without buying something to enhance it? Odds are you can’t.

In a world dictated by Super Bowl commercials and Facebook ads, it takes stalwart focus to recognize what you have more than what you don’t. If you want a stress-free life now, get stalwart, and stop letting other people dictate your focus.

In order to do this, try cultivating a gratitude practice to help refocus your mind toward what is good in your life. You can get started with this guide.

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5. Stop Surrounding Yourself With People Who Don’t Make You Happy

Honestly, what kind of people do you really like to be around with? People who get you, who see you clearly, who accept your flaws and all; people you can be yourself with; people who have shared interests?

How many of those people are in your life? What characteristics do all of the other people in your life have?

If you find that the people in your life aren’t adding anything positive, it may be time to make some changes. If you find that other relationships you have are downright toxic, start working to cut out those relationships immediately.

6. Find a Job That Makes You Feel Good

You don’t have to stay at a job just because it pays the bills. Most people spend more time working than sleeping. The average person spends 40 to 80 hours a week—or 2,000 to 4,000 hours a year—working. That is a significant investment!

If your best friend or child told you that they were going to spend 4,000 hours giving their emotional, mental, and physical energy to something (or someone) that wasn’t going to value them, give anything back to them, or pay them what they were worth, what advice would you offer? Give that same advice to yourself. You won’t be stress-free unless you don’t learn this[3].

Here’re 11 Signs That You Should Leave Your Job.

7. Only Take on What You Can Handle

Busyness is an addiction. Slowing down can actually be terrifying because it causes you to notice that you have feelings that you now have time to feel.

I get it.

By the time I slowed down, I had decades of busyness under my belt. I went into a tailspin depression because I didn’t understand how to be in the right relationship with my own emotions.

When I finally figured out that feelings are just feelings and allowing them to express themselves is healthy and natural, I stopped experiencing withdrawal from my addiction to busyness and started figuring out the pace of life that felt best for me.

Remarkably, I discovered that I don’t actually like being busy. What will you discover about yourself?

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8. Let Go of Grudges and Anger

For me, it took 20 years of adulthood to figure out that holding on to grudges and anger only hurt me. Lucky for you, though, you can benefit vicariously from my experience just by reading one short paragraph!

No one is holding your feet to the fire, demanding that you hold on to grudges and anger. The energy of anger slowly eats away at your body, mind, and spirit, until one day you wake up more resentful than optimistic.

One day, people no longer want to be around you because the stink of negativity is oozing out of your pores. One day, you even get tired of hearing yourself get angry. And the person or people you are angry at or holding grudges against probably haven’t been affected at all.

Who gets hurt the most in that process of repeating negative thoughts? You do.

Some good advice for you here: How to Let Go of Resentment and Anger

9. Stop Reliving Your Past

To live a stress-free life, you have to stop reliving your past. I know it seems like fun to compare everything in your present to your past, and to experience the present through past-colored glasses, but it actually isn’t.

When you wear past-colored glasses, you can’t truly experience the present for what it is. Your boyfriend or girlfriend gets compared to a list of expectations and failed relationships rather than recognized for the unique blessing they are in your life.

Your boss gets compared to all the bosses who came before her/him. Your friends’ ability to parent gets compared to your parents’ ability to parent.

People, including you, deserve to stand on their own past-free merit.

10. Don’t Complain About Things You Can’t Change

There are always going to be people elected into office whom you don’t like, taxes that you don’t want to pay, idiot drivers who refuse to move out of the left-hand lane, and a person ahead of you in the check-out line who won’t stop chatting with the clerk.

The great benefit of being human is that we get to experience all of what life offers us. To live stress-free is to learn to deal with this fact.

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Dwelling on your frustration with something that can’t be changed doesn’t do anything other than drag you down. You are the only person who will ultimately decide how to respond to what is.

11. Stop Living Through Other People’s Lives

Someone else’s life is not your life. Your life is your life.

What that means is you get to live your life in the way you want. You get to make ridiculous mistakes, take leaps of faith, and stuff things inside your handbag of fear just as much as the next person.

Going through stuff is the whole great messy adventure of being human! Being alive and living life is terrifying and glorious and everything in between.

Stop living through social media, trying to soak in all of the experiences everyone else is having. Focus, instead, on what it feels like to be you in this moment. You may find you like it.

Final Thoughts

An astounding thing happens when you reduce stress and anxiety, get into a relationship with your body, mind, and spirit, and just be yourself without judgment.

Your life literally slows down. You stop wishing for the weekend. You begin to live in each moment, and you start feeling like a human being. You just ride the wave that is life, with this feeling of contentment and joy.

You move fluidly, steadily, calmly, and gratefully. A veil is lifted, and a whole new perspective is born through improved mental health. And this is how you live a stress-free life.

More Tips on How to Live a Stress-Free Life

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