I’ve been thinking about surprise this week. Which came as such a surprise to me when I heard myself saying the word that I thought I’d write a bit about it.

The occasion of the conversation was when several of us on safely separated Zoom, of course, were preparing short talks three of us were going to do for a group of young people just beginning to think about their careers. Or as I prefer to describe it, to think about what they’d like to do with their lives. Uneasy and disbelieving as I generally am about careers.

Anyway, going through the brief for our ten minute talks we were asked to cover jobs we’d had, changes we’d made, mistakes if possible, and even achievements, before arriving at an “and finally.”

So, finally, what would be your top tips or pieces of advice for the young people, as young as thirteen some of them, just at the beginning of thinking about jobs and all that?

My speaking companions said wise things about the getting of wide varieties of experience, doing volunteering, helping out and how universities are not necessarily the be-alls and end-alls, always. Then when it was my turn I eased myself into my own advice with:

“Try and be travelling in the general direction of doing work you love.”

Which if you know me is roughly what you’d probably have expected me to say. Except then and without having thought of it in advance I also said:

“But always allow yourself to be surprised.”

Which surprised me but went down well as an idea with everyone else in the conversation, and so made it through to the talk I did yesterday.

The surprise of a Winter Garden

And today I’ve still been thinking about what I meant? Not just about jobs, careers and all that, of course. But surprise as an essential element of life?

That none of us knows everything and so we can’t possibly plan for everything is part of what I mean. Especially in answer to that annoying thing you might sometimes get asked about:

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

How should I know and why would I want to?

Because leaving room for surprise might mean saying yes rather than no to a possibility you weren’t expecting and certainly couldn’t have planned for. The trying out of a new experience perhaps, that comes out of nowhere. Like someone suggesting you might be good at something you’ve never even thought of. Then not automatically saying a self-limiting “no” to any such thing. Because none of us knows everything, especially about ourselves. Particularly about what we might be capable of if we’d only give ourselves the chance.

A slide from my talk

And this isn’t any sort of self-help magazine article so I’m not about to come out with a heart-warming list of “Ten new things to try that might surprise you.” As all I can really know about are things that have surprised me, obviously.

Like the surprising fact for example, and still a wonder to me, that I’m now deeply into the second year of doing a PhD. And seem to be not only capable of doing it in a finding my own way kind of fashion, admittedly. But also to be vastly enjoying myself. The mental stretching involved, together with the long-form, hundred thousand words, of writing having turned out to be an unexpected if rigorous pleasure. I’d said an unequivocal “No” after all, to even considering the PhD at all when someone first suggested I apply. Meaning I’m increasingly glad now that I was persuaded to change my previously self-limiting mind.

Then there’s the equally surprising fact, a slower sort of surprise this one, that I’m enjoying getting older. The slowing down of it and also the more careful thinking. Some letting go, certainly, of things I’m now happy to accept I’ll never like or be any good at. Like being on management boards or going to parties. But the big surprise about getting older is how I seem to have lost my fear of death. A fear that’s always been somewhere waiting ahead of me has dissolved with age. And peacefully accepting life will now stop one day is making me gladder than ever of all the other days. Where I’ll travel in the general direction of doing what I love but always allow myself to be surprised. A glad surprise then, this death one. That’s surprised me in the writing of it down, right now and here. You never know what you don’t yet know, do you?

And yes I realise there’ll be surprises on the way for each and all of us that are by no means good ones. Diagnoses and other diminishings. But maybe this being more open to surprise could help even with these? With some deeper tendency to resilience perhaps? I’ve no idea, yet.

Meanwhile I’m leaving myself open to surprise. Hoping most of the surprises ahead of me will be good ones and getting the word “yes” ready for more uses than I used to make of it.

Thank you to my friends from PLACED for asking me the question, and to all the young people they work with for listening to and questioning me last Monday at their Academy Insights event.

And of course thank you, always, to my friends in Granby for the glorious surprise of their Winter Garden, in the pictures. Much missed and longed for this past year. When at first I’d said I didn’t think the Winter Garden was a good idea.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. Those words ring true to me, Ronnie. My surprise was when discussing jobs with a friend who had a good neat path behind him, and a clear one ahead (even if opportunities on that path would always be scarce). I said I’m jealous of that, as I don’t know what my path should look like, and he said he envied my apparent willingness to leave behind roles that I didn’t feel comfortable in, in searching for the right one. It changed how I view my life’s course. Part of being ready to say Yes to something is to be ready to say ‘No, no longer’ to something else, maybe something that you feel wedded to. Sounds to me like you’re saying that too in your final paragraphs. It’s very freeing!

    1. Glad it rings true with your own experience Martin. Even the saying no bits. I’d always wondered why I’d felt so out of place at parties, until I realised that even amongst friends I don’t like being amongst all of them at the same time. And so such sayings of ‘no’ create the spaces to say ‘yes’ to new things.

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