What Happened to the Truly Amazing?

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“Nobody does amazing anymore,” he said as we stood talking. Conference attendees milled about, grabbing coffee and chatting with exhibitors and peers. The scene could have been cut from this conference space and pasted into a thousand other conference spaces seamlessly. The booths. The continental breakfast. The vendors. The carpet. The scene was so familiar that one might legitimately fear the very real danger of blanking for a minute on the elevator ride, and literally walking from the sensory deprivation of that metal box into the lights and voices of somewhere unknown, the scene before you blending into the deja vu of a hundred other similar moments.

My friend’s comment was not directly related to the scene in which we were standing but it struck me hard enough to give me pause. I pointed at him and said, “That’s good, I’m going to write about that this week-end.” Such is the inspiration of moments.

We spend a lot of time trodding the same paths, cycling in the same conversations, and plodding through the same underwhelming encounters. In the business world, this is particularly true as so much of what gets done is attached to the me-too sameness of one company trying to out-incrementalize the next competitor with a similar story accented with a mediocre twist. Safety demands small movements and, in the name of risk management, we work really hard to box all known variables into the spreadsheet Olympics of status quo comparisons and been-there-done -that-ness.

Watching such gyrations, one might conclude that we’re spending most of our creative energies trying to figure out how to be our most uncreative selves.

Business isn’t alone in this regard. Think of our schools and classrooms. Barring the exceptionally motivated teacher or administrator, the institutionalization of education is complete as we’ve systematized, rationalized, and assembly-lined the formation of our youth through a mass-production system of facilities, programs, and structures frequently designed to focus on the lowest common denominator. Or, at least the lowest common agenda.

What about our hospitals? Our gas stations? Our shopping malls? Our restaurants? Our airports? Our court rooms? Our jails? A recent trip to ABC city in XYZ state struck me, as I found myself on a road I had never traveled and felt completely at home among the comforting brands, building shapes, signage, and vehicles crowding about me. Everything about it was absolutely familiar. I literally thought, “I could be picked up and dropped into just about any city in the U.S. and find it pretty familiar.”

Of course, there are exceptions. There always are. And, there is a reason for such sameness: it works. It scales. It sells. It comforts. It is predictable and, generally speaking, we like it that way. When it comes to many of our experiences, we really don’t want to be surprised. We don’t like surprise bills, unexpected taxes, unidentifiable foods, unfamiliar working conditions, or unknown expectations. Our preference is to live most of our life in the known. We want to be surrounded by the familiar as it makes us more comfortable and removes our sense of uncertainty.

When do we want to be surprised? That is really a curious question. Many of us “hate surprises.” Surprises can be jolting, discomfiting, or awkward. A surprise may knock us “off our game” and into the unknown. Surprises can be scary. The unexpected might shock us and set our heart racing as the adrenaline triggered in our reaction kicks-in. Surprises can be disorienting as we struggle to find footing amid the shifting sand of a new situation.

What kind of surprise might we want? A pleasant surprise. Which often means, the one we asked for. Think about gift giving. We ask, “what do you want for your birthday?” so we can avoid the risk of giving a gift that is not wanted. As receivers, we expect to get the things we requested which of course eliminates the surprise of something undesired…or unknown. Didn’t have a chance to ask what she wanted? That’s ok, there’s a gift receipt so she can go back and get what was really wanted.

Amid all of the predictability that we so enjoy, remain occasions in which we are surprised in a delightful way. Every so often, something appears in our life that we did not expect, or even know we could expect. An encounter, a gift, an experience, a view, a piece of art, a word, an idea, a moment of joy – sometimes these things appear stealthily and catch us unawares, delighting us in the process. And that, is amazing.

The unexpected can delight and thrill us. It can amaze us because we didn’t think it was possible or hadn’t even imagined it. It is rare, powerful, and inspiring.

And, it is risky. Such a surprise is unknown…and uncertain. Aiming for amazing is risky business. It might not work. It might fall flat, disappoint, or possibly even agitate. In a world of sameness, status quo, and very specific expectations, amazing can be a big bet.

This is why we aim for incremental improvements. Small adjustments to make something good, better. This is why we ask what others want for Christmas, complete personality profiles, read books on love languages, and answer every question in a request for proposal. This is why we live a world of me-tooism and status quo sameness. This is why my friend lamented that no one “does amazing anymore.”

We’re so busy following the “proven” formula or responding to what we know (or at least think) is expected, that we miss the chance to shoot for the moon in the unexpected. In our quest to meet expectations, we miss the opportunity to amaze with the unknown, uncertain, and potentially delightful.

What would be truly amazing? Answers to questions we didn’t know to ask. Solutions to problems we didn’t know could be solved. Exceeding expectations in ways that have never been done before. Anticipating issues before we knew they could possibly be issues. Reimagining the institutions, organizations, models, roadways, billboards, relationships, careers, and legal structures that blandly keep us so narrowly centered in the cramped spaces of lives smaller than we deserve.

Let’s walk into this week rethinking some of the comfortable expectations of our lives and striving to imagine where a few surprises might amaze those we love, serve, or work with. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves equally surprised and amazed along the way.

Showing 3 comments
  • Wayne Feest

    Your firing up the brain. It is not like there is pent up demand just waiting to be unleashed. Thinking becomes lazy over time. Let’s see what happens.

  • Jerry

    Just great stuff Phil. A very wise mentor once told me to focus on four things in terms of “doing” to try and break repetition of cycles, to try and be different, and to try and renew. The lesson was along the lines of the four things to “consistently or constantly” do being: 1) What should you keep doing; 2) What should you stop doing; 3) What should you start doing; and 4) What should you do differently. Try as we may or may not, I found this useful to try and break patterns, to “disrupt”, to not settle, and to possibly seek continuous improvement. Perhaps not towards “amazing”, but hopefully towards a better tomorrow at the very least.

  • Trish+Berry

    Refreshing thoughts and so true!

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