Mechanics of Surprise

What are the underlying principles involving surprises?

The Cosmos series is a tribute and an overview of the body of work of the philosopher Alan W. Watts(see the P.S. section of article Reality Is Bliss for more information).

All perfectly known futures have already passed. When everything gets explained away, the element of surprise has gone and one loses interest in them. When you know the outcome of a game, you scrap it and start a new one. It is very difficult to surprise one’s self, but that too, happens more often than people realize. We are always searching new ways to get the unexpected result. This article is an attempt to describe the mechanics involving surprises.

When we are engaging in activities involving anything creative, be it in the form of music, books, movies or video games, often the thing that makes them interesting is the sudden unexpected result from events that came before it. Sometimes the result is desirable, sometimes it is not. But it is equally important in both cases. These cases don’t stop in specific venues or activities presented by other people - they’re a mechanism that underlies everything we do. The geniuses that find the way to keep people hooked in their products are using the element which counts the most, the element of surprise.

We come into contact with this phenomenon most easily by bumping into a person we haven’t seen in years, or somewhere we didn’t expect to see them. We see it in sudden shifts in weather patterns, or natural catastrophes. We see into it also by taking part in artistic and cultural events such as concerts or plays. It lies in between events, things and happenings. It is dependant on our conscious attention. Sometimes it completely eludes us.

Not only does one get surprises that come from activities they consciously take part in, or witnessing events and getting them through ever so many voluntary actions in the ‘external’ world, they also receive them through involuntary actions of their own physical organism. These range from getting sudden diseases such as the common cold, to even more sudden hiccups, coughs and sneezes. Where one might simply take them as to be merely physical symptoms based on biological and evolutionary aspects, I look for the philosophical and metaphysical aspects as well.

Most people have no idea how artists do what they do. If we knew how to create geniuses such as Mozarts or Da Vincis perfectly with every student in every educational facility in our countries, It would diminish the value of the formerly unknown factors. It would make them obsolete. Ask any genius how they create their works and they can carefully describe the steps they took to arrive at the desired result, but they cannot explain how they saw the steps that were necessary to be taken - or how they worked the inner mechanics of their brains to achieve such a feat in the first place. It is a mechanism(I dislike using this word because it suggests we’re inorganic) that is left to the side of the unknown, and is left there for a good reason.

Sure, they can put the tools and principles in your hands, and show how to use them, but they can’t impart the inspiration that they experienced to arrive at the desired result. There’s always this deep mystery in everything that we create. In other words, we surprise ourselves. And surprises are essentially the domain in which every great artist operates. And so I think a little bit about creativity is in order, because it ties into surprises.

Are there rules to being a good writer? Or a great artist? Probably. But, how can we ever find out if what we produce is worthwhile, unless we actually make a move. I could sit here for eternity ruminating about what to write, or instead of that I could actually write. I’m always too much in the heads of the audience, instead of my own mode of creativity. The biggest obstacle in my opinion that is standing in the way of a writer or even artists in general are their own image of who they want to be - if they feel like they need to figure it out first, then they’ll never get to creating. As Austin Kleon puts it in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started ‘being creative,’ well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.”

So instead of “figuring myself out”, I’ll let the words do that for me. Another side to this is that I will not stand in my own way, that is to say, I will let my brain come to my rescue. (At least that the ideal.) Letting those subconscious reservoirs bubble up to the surface and work in my favour. And I think this is an area which becomes ambiguous and lies at the root of why geniuses will never be able to explain how they did what they did. Sure, they can put the tools in your hands and show how to use them, but they can’t explain how they saw the steps that lead to the finished piece. The thing that makes a genius a genius is that the person does something we can’t understand. In other words, they surprise us.

The amazing variety of creative activities do not stop simply at writing, painting or producing music. For example, cooking is a great art. Making clothes is an art form. Even the act of talking to people online is creative in my opinion. And I think that creativity is a force which is inherent to all human beings. Only, most of us are too busy going from point A to point B, so that we never take the time to figure out what form our creativity could possibly take.

Because it is exactly the kind of society in which we live, which makes sure that we’re always busy. So most of the time we never get the chance to really explore our creative side. But that would require something radically different from our usual status quo. Of going into ourselves and simply watching as it all happens. This would give us an interval or a breather to figure out what we really wanted to do. And most people don’t seem to know what they want - they have hazy ideas about it, wealth, love, success, meaningful living and so on. But if they actually stopped for little while and let things take their course, they might discover themselves with newfound energy.

I often wonder about this lack of motivation which in itself seems to be the driving force of the 21st century. Just look at all the people “not doing anything”. Are they the ones to be blamed for all the trouble in the world–because they are simply watching as things go to shit? Or is it the people who just has to do something to fix things? I think it’s the unrecognized balance of the two classes of people working together. But I also argue that the ones that aren’t doing anything, that is, contributing to the economy or the local communities in a productive way, are the people who are actually sometimes contributing the most.

Let’s take as an example this person who is a paranoid schizophrenic. He’s lived a life of anxiety, panic attacks, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. And he’s had to quit school and work altogether and is now retired. Now, on the surface it might seem as if they’re a very unproductive member of the society. But on the side from all that miserable existence, he’s found ways in which to contribute creatively. He writes, he paints, he makes music. From a “prickly”, hard-boiled and honest worker’s perspective, this might seem like a “waste of time”.

But actually, this artist has found more subtle means to influence people. Or maybe subtle is not quite the right word because nothing makes an impact on people like images, words and sounds. Perhaps, cunning is more suitable. So I would say to the businessman: “Look, you contribute to society by selling a product - I do that too, only, I care less about the numbers involved and I’m in the business of influencing minds, not people’s wallets. I couldn’t care less whether I make money–I love what I do. If I get paid for it, all the better. But that’s not the end goal for me. It is to inspire, not to keep capitalism afloat.”

Also, I think it’s a good idea to simply waste your time at least once in a while. Because more good ideas come about when we’re least expecting them, then when we are forcing them. You need to take a break from thinking occasionally. For the simple reason of preservation of the intellect. If you think all the time, then all you have to think about are thoughts. And you never experience the world around you, which Alfred Korzybski referred to as the “unspeakable” world. So you’ll dry up. It’s like talking to yourself all the time and nobody else–you’ll never know what other people have to say.

Therefore, to create is to allow yourself to not only consciously decide what to put on the paper, it is to get into the depths of your mind and unlock whatever is waiting for you there. And the only way to do that is to quiet yourself and take a break from the constant chatter that goes in your head. Now I know that some people may have difficulties in doing this. But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t or can’t write or paint. Everyone has their own style of creating. But the only way to tap into that style is to take an interval from the usual busyness of the everyday life.

And so here we get back to the original problem – the problem of who we are as artists. You’ll never find out by sitting around and picturing yourself as an idealized figure. You have to act, and to make things requires a clear mind, or a relatively one at least. No great master ever created their magnum opus by worrying about the audience. They just did it. If they had worried about it, it would’ve turned out to be sheer garbage. Because people want what’s new. If you create by expectations, you’ll never surprise anyone.

The greatest lesson in creativity, for my thinking, is that no matter what the medium for it is, if you don’t love what you’re doing, it will never be a product worthy of inspiration. And inspiration seldom comes out of hatred. That doesn’t mean to say that hate as a feeling does not produce creative outcomes. Hell, I once drew a picture while being utterly anxious. It is only saying that if we leave out a whole domain of experience which to draw from, the subconscious, then we might never experience true inspiration. And to be inspired means ultimately to be connected with your own inner self. And our subconscious processes are being largely neglected.

If one had to switch on their brain in the morning in the process of waking up, working all the circuits and turning on all the millions of individual neurons, they would never get started. They would very soon find out, that from the standpoint of the conscious attention, it would be an impossible task. How can this be? Well, we have a linear way of thinking things. We can only think one thing at a time, as they say. And this is a very serious limitation. A person cannot handle situations that have more than few variables at a time, without taking notes. However, our brain is capable of millions of variables simultaneously and is taking in input every moment that would quickly overwhelm our conscious attention.

Our conscious attention is like the headlight of a car, which scans objects in front of it in a cone-like fashion, and makes notation of significant features in the environment. But it doesn’t see the wiring which connects it to the battery in the engine. It doesn’t know directly how it works the rest of the car. This is what is called conscious attention, or the ego. It is simply the focused attention to any linear process. A centipede can work all its hundred legs because it doesn’t have to think about it. In other words, it doesn’t have to translate the signals over in to terms of language - it does it “superconsciously”. Same way as human beings are doing all sorts of things in their body, like circulating their blood, working their glands, or getting input from billions of nerve-endings simultaneously.

But translating any of these activities into symbols such as words, numbers or images would take so long, all the paper in the world wouldn’t be enough. Because the universe does not come at in those terms. It comes at us as a multidimensional, multifaceted, multilayered process. Which is why we do it unconsciously. And our brain does it well. If we didn’t let our conscious attention get in its way, we might get surprised more often.

So, if we knew how to create the greatest music, greatest movie, or the perfect game, and we knew it infallibly, it would cease its own function and interest. Our civilization would end its advancement if we knew how to create things that came without surprises. The one thing that keeps people going is what they don’t know yet. And that is one of the most puzzling concepts ever conceived. The mystery of life.

It might not be obvious but if one realizes that they are much more than just their conscious attention, that means that what they thought were involuntary things happening to them, must also include what they are doing - that is, the different functions in their physical organism. We don’t say that we are beating our heart, growing our hair, or circulating our blood. We tend to think that our heart beating, our hair growing, and our blood circulating is what happens to us. We don’t see that what appears to be not conscious is in fact highly conscious, only it is freeing us from having to translate its functions to symbols that can be processed linearly.

Take the analogy of the cat and the fence. If you were standing in front of a fence with a narrow crack in it and there was a cat walking behind it, you would first see its head through the crack and little later, it’s tail. And you might think that the head and the tail were two separate events. But if the hole in the fence were enlarged, and your view of the cat became complete, you would see that it was all a single cat. It is the same way with life. We tend to think in terms of separate things and events, so we get surprised when we found out the connection between the events.

This, again, is a clue that what we perceive as being chopped up into bits and pieces, are in fact all part of one process, which encompasses this entire arrangement of galaxies and space. And if one is the hair hanging from their forehead, they are the entire universe, as shown by this analogy. The purpose of surprises is they are what keeps the dynamics of life interesting - it’s what moves them to something that is less known, thus creating something to strive towards. If one didn’t have this essential component, the game would cease to be worth the candle. And the purpose of life itself is simply being alive, and enjoying it and its many surprises.


P.S. Whenever we’re creating something, if you constantly surprise yourself like Bob Ross did through little happy accidents, it is not in my opinion wrong to have the feeling of being impressed by your own work. I’ve had this sensation half come up from the very beginning when I started to create images. And I think this is not because I’m an egotist(which I am nonetheless), but because I get constantly surprised by what I could do. I feel sincere wonder because my mind surprises itself through my hand every time I try something new in my works. Maybe I’m a sick narcissist who loves his own handiwork but being able to surprise and be surprised and wonder how the hell did I fart such a piece out of my brush is right to feel in that moment. If you’re good at something and you know you are good, that is much better than the alternative that you don’t know it. You might as well not be happy if you don’t know you’re happy.

Credits and sincerest thank you to