The Capacity to Surprise

One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What do you look for in a person?” I ask it in the context of sizing up someone’s potential as a friend, as an employee, as a conversation partner, anything.

I always find it fascinating what somebody looks for (what specific characteristics does he mention) and then how he goes about assessing the existence of those characteristics in a short period of time. It’s easy to say “I look for intelligence” but what specific things tip you off? (My old and well commented post on litmus tests covers this.)

One friend recently gave an interesting answer: he looks for people who can surprise him. He said that if someone doesn’t surprise him, he doesn’t get a sense of the person’s presence.

I’d have to agree: there’s nothing more boring than a person whose sentences you feel you can finish every time. Or who fits squarely into a stereotype such that 90% of their beliefs perfectly align with a broader political or religious label.

What I usually answer to the question which opened this post, when I’m choosing friends, romantic partners, or conversation companions, is “eccentricity.” I like eccentric people. They’re usually very fun. They are unique, like keys. And they regularly surprise me.

15 comments on “The Capacity to Surprise
  • I couldn’t agree more. If you are open minded, people that can surprise you lead to growth.

    There are certain areas where I think people must have some commonalities–enough things that overlap so that you have a shared platform for exchange.

    As long as you have that and a measure of mutual respect and trust, people that cause each other to reach and stretch tend to offer very rewarding relationships.

  • I consider myself cynical. And every once in a while, something happens that reminds me that I am not quite cynical enough.

    And then sometimes I meet someone who impresses me unexpectedly . . . this is what I like.

  • I really appreciate the ability to be unashamedly enthusiastic about life and people. I struggle to do this myself, which makes me place a high value on such a trait.

    I also love to be around people who are curious about themselves, others, and the world. I’ve gotten to the point where I now actively avoid, as much as possible, those who recoil from self-knowledge and who visibly lack interest in other people or ideas. (There are more out there than you’d think.)

    Finally, I gravitate toward free marketeers and those who are suspicious and mistrustful of state authority. Talk about NOT surprising, eh? 😀

  • Do you consider that the eccentric person has to master some skill to surprise you?

    In other words, a person that functions as a great idea source but doesn’t get too much done her-him self?

    I’ve been on my transition from taker to doer for the last couple of months, so this post and your friend’s comments are quite motivational and valuable.

    “I really appreciate the ability to be unashamedly enthusiastic about life and people.”

    I’d recommend you read good stuff like Scott Young or Zen Habits. There’s always some positive message awaiting for you.

  • Indeed yes, freaks are much needed to escape the ordinary. The world owes all its onward impulses to enigmatic men that were ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits. Given even the most dim witted folks have one or other endearing attributes, even a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. The hardest part is that the onus is on the seeker to find it, not on the other to parade it. That makes approach through the right door all important. Often times I’ve noticed the most beautiful trait in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. That’s as surprising as it can get.

  • I love surprises, and I’ve found that every time a birthday or anniversary pops up, the last thing I need to focus on is what to buy my wife, but how I can surprise her.

    Works every time and the look on her face is priceless.

  • First, your friend sounds a bit like a narcissist.
    “He doesn’t get a sense of the person’s presence.”?
    But I digress, that is probably just one of his qualities that make him eccentric, so no worries.

    I think that anyone who can read between the lines of this video may be worthy of friendship, if not at least an interesting conversation.

  • In my take, he parallels one antagonist in novel Fountain Head by Ayn Rand: Ellsworth Toohey (

    Whether or not you believe in what he is fighting for is irrelevant, the fact that he states that he himself is transcends greed and has no concern for money (or the MASSIVE amounts of money he will be making for other people, which is almost as valuable for future opportunities)

    The bottom line is there is a conflict of interest. It is beyond me to decide whether or not it’s enough of one to effectively prevent him from being an appropriate spokesperson for his cause or to be a partner at a venture fund with over a Billion dollars invested in his cause. I could believe it either way, that is not the important issue.

    My only point is that the video I posted, in my humble opinion, represents everything that is wrong with him and the pop culture green movement he tries to represent… And that a person I would enjoy having a conversation with or pursuing a friendship with would hopefully understand this and be able to discuss the finer points of whether or not its logical to follow a leader who is blind to his own greed(even if it is fueled by a different type of currency than dollar bills, perhaps it is feeling important?) and other issues regarding his cause.

    What do you think?

  • Also, sorry for taking away from the original point of your post, this is a pretty irrelevant topic to your post.
    I guess here is a relevant question, would you enjoy having Gore as a friend? He may surprise you with his eccentricity, and you may be aware of his presence, but if he surprises you with things that disappoint you (assuming you agree with my assessment, which I am unsure of), would his celebrity status make him an enjoyable conversation partner or would you be looking for the door?
    (assuming of course you weren’t trying to pitch him one of your ideas after listening to him talk of course) 😉

  • It was silly of Gore to say “You don’t know me” or to say he’s above greed.

    But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making tons of money at the same time as pushing a good cause. Of course he’s biased. That doesn’t make the underlying points any more or less valid.

  • I agree with you in that he shouldn’t be prevented from making money while supporting his cause.

    My red flags just go off when I hear what he said, with the intensity of which he disapproved of someone questioning his personal motives when he is clearly making a lot of people a lot of money, even if he gives away his personal earnings.

    The greater relevance of this post is to say I would enjoy speaking with a person who would have an opinion about the greater meaning of a video such as that, even if they disagreed with me.

    Bottom line, possession of an opinion rather than eccentricity, to me, makes up an interesting conversation partner.

    Anyway, great blog, sorry to detract from your post with an ‘anti-gore’ tangent.

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