This is the kind of question you find yourself pondering as you get older, if you're searching for wisdom. And I'm definitely searching for wisdom.
I found the clue in an intriguing conversation I had last fall with a friend of mine from Geneva, Switzerland.
He was telling me about a survey he had heard about. His recollection of this particular survey was hazy, but no matter. For me, all surveys or studies fall into two basic categories: those whose findings I disbelieve, no matter how great the evidence; and those whose findings I do believe, no matter how little the evidence. This was the latter kind.
It was a survey (best he remembered) of restaurant patrons, to find out why they did or did not recommend a restaurant to their friends, after dining there. The findings were:
If people ate out at a restaurant, and both the food and the service were below their expectations, they tended to tell 3-5 people about the bad experience they had there, and didn't recommend that restaurant.
If only one of those two (the food or the service) was below their expectations, they tended to tell 1-2 people about the bad experience they had there, and still did not recommend the restaurant.
If the food and the service just met their expectations they tended to tell no one about that restaurant.
But if the food and service surprised them because it exceeded their expectations, they tended to tell 2-4 people about the restaurant, and heartily recommended it to them.
Then my friend hammered home the key finding: "The key to a restaurant or any business getting raved about is that it must give its patrons a surprise. We are always looking for Surprise, not only in restaurants, but everywhere in life."
I realized how true this was. One of my friends once raved about a restaurant to me because he had asked for a particular kind of ice cream or sorbet for dessert, and when it arrived he found out it wasn't on their menu, but without a word to him they had an employee run to pick some up from a nearby place. Surprise!
Another recommended a restaurant to me, because he was a regular there, and on unpredictable occasions – once every three months, more or less – when he would ask for the check, they would inform him that the owner had picked it up, and the dinner was free. No wonder he loved the place: we are always looking for Surprise.
A good business, a good employee, a good job-hunt, a good relationship: Surprise is the key to all of these. Your boss notices you made an extra effort to accomplish a goal given you, instead of just saying, "Oh well, I tried." Surprise! Extra time, extra effort, extra initiative – these are the accepted marks of a good employee, and they all add up to Surprise. (If your employer isn't surprised or impressed, start thinking about finding some other place to work.)
And speaking of finding some other place to work, a good job-hunt likewise has the element of Surprise at its heart. The would-be employer notices you've taken the time to figure out what your best and strongest skills are. Surprise! Or the employer notices you've taken a lot of time and effort (in information interviewing) to find out about that place, before you walk in. Surprise! The job-hunter who thus surprises the would-be employer is usually the one who gets the job.
And in relationships, the same truth obtains. In the film, "Playing by Heart," one of the characters wishes her mate would surprise her by uncharacteristically suggesting they do such a simple thing as just go for a walk together. In relationships, as elsewhere, we are always looking for Surprise.
We have seen enough to catalog the four characteristics of Surprise:
It revolves around expectations.
You're offered behavior that exceeds what you expected.
It almost always involves what the Bible calls "going the second mile."
It's doing more than other people would.
It always involves the giving of a gift, but often that gift is time and not money.
A surprise is best when it is time that is given, when we least expect it.
It makes us feel loved.
It makes us feel special, and makes us feel warm toward the person who gave us Surprise.
If you want to put new life into your business, into your job, into your relationships, think of how you can depart from the norm, go the second mile, offer your time, and pleasantly surprise them when they least expect it. We are all searching for Surprise in life.