The Surprising Power of Surprises | How we can be transformed by unexpected moments

The Surprising Power of Surprises | How we can be transformed by unexpected moments



min read

Do you love surprises?

My wife knows how much I love giving surprises. I love the planning stage, the anticipation of the reveal, and particularly the moment of reaction. I also have a tendency to emotionally overinvest —  feeling super disappointed if the surprise doesn’t work. Can you relate?

Whether you love giving surprises, getting surprised, neither or both, neurological research shows that surprises are a universal experience  and are worth paying attention to. In this newsletter, I mainly draw upon the work of “surprise expert” Michael Rousell, a Canadian psychologist who has spent decades studying the impact of surprises or spontaneous influence events (SIE) on our lives.

Surprises have the power to disarm us and change our deeply held beliefs 

According to Rousell, surprises trigger our “belief revision reflex,” which disarms our instinctive defense mechanisms and rational thinking processes and leaves us open to instant adoption of new beliefs. 

He gives the example of an iconic moment in one of the most popular sci-fi movies of all time, released almost 45 years ago (SPOILER ALERT)! When Star Wars fans found out that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, it not only dismantled their assumptions about Darth Vader but also their understanding of the story to that point. 

Rousell notes that the power of surprises go beyond mere movie plot twists or birthday celebrations and have the potential to be life-changing, particularly when it comes to challenging negative beliefs about ourselves and how we engage in the world.

A personal example: for much of my life I believed I needed to fix my tendency to think long and hard about, well, everything. I held a lot of negativity about my “over-thinking.” Around my early 30’s, I started to hear comments from others that surprised me with their positivity. Comments such as, “James, I appreciate how thoughtful you are” or “You’re a deeper thinker” or “You give a fresh perspective”.  This surprising encouragement transformed the way I thought about my “over-thinking” and I began to see it as potentially a strength, even a superpower of sorts. (Of course, as with any strength, it can lead to unhealth if not checked, but that’s a thought for another day!) 

I wonder how many superpowers we have that are masked by negative beliefs and could be revealed by surprises?

But beware the voices after a surprise

While surprises have the potential to be life-changing, in a positive way, it’s important to understand the “shadow side.” Rousell explains that our brains are wired to believe the first solution that solves our surprise. And that may not be a correct interpretation of reality. 

Consider a scenario involving a younger person we care about (e.g. child, nephew, niece, friend). Let’s imagine it’s their first year in a new school and they find out they are the only person not invited to the end of year party. In the surprise state, their brain seeks reasons for not being included and then the first voice of explanation thunders from the playground “no-one wants you here”. No subsequent voices with alternate explanations chime in. The reality is the school didn’t have their correct email address and the party invite was never sent, however the damage to the self confidence of the person we care about has already been inflicted. 

The fact that the first voice of explanation immediately after a surprise is very influential, is a cause for caution. When I am in a state of “elevated suggestibility” after a surprising event, who am I listening to? What voices am I allowing to explain surprising situations in my life? My voice? Other voices? Encouraging or discouraging voices? Voices I’m impressed by or voices I trust?

Deriving the benefit of positive surprises

Assuming we have a better handle on the primary voices in our lives, there’re a couple of things we can do to extract the benefits of surprises.

#1 Capture surprises.

Start by noticing surprises. In my daily journal, I’ve been asking the question “What surprised me today?” If you’re still not sold on the benefit of surprises, I suggest an exercise of documenting what has already surprised you over your life that has been instrumental in your personal journey of growth. For me that has included a surprising spiritual awakening at the age of 16, the supernatural healing of a (physical!) hole in my heart, meeting my now wife in a church service on a spontaneous trip to Asia, surviving 5 days in the Australian outback with nothing but a 20kg backpack, writing and releasing songs even though I didn’t pass grade one in music, and getting to now coach and advise full-time in the area of human flourishing despite my initial formal training in intense mathematics and probabilities. When I consider my long life list of surprises, it makes me want more of them! 

#2 Create surprises. 

If you’re not getting enough surprises in your life, the good news is you don’t have to wait to be surprised, you can do something about it! Rousell encourages the purposeful creation of surprises for our benefit and the benefit of those we love. 

To create the benefit of surprise for yourself, why not try something out of the ordinary in 2024? Engage in an activity you thought you could never do. Intentionally try a cuisine you don’t normally eat and haven’t really given a chance. Or how about exposing yourself to thoughts and beliefs that you aren’t naturally comfortable with and see if there’s any common ground that exists? I’ve already invested myself in a couple of year-long programs in 2024 where I’ll be opening myself on a regular basis to be surprised, where my beliefs will be challenged, and where I trust I will become a better human because of the process. 

For ideas on how to create the benefit of surprise for others, why not give someone an “old school” phone call (no video) and let them sit, maybe initially uncomfortably, in surprise? Then tell them specifically what you deeply appreciate about them that you’ve never told them before. Or if you have a loved one who experiences you in a predominant way, why don’t you intentionally show them the other sides of you? For example, if you’re usually the “fun, joyful, positive” one, for a change, carve out some time to share something in your life that you were saddened, angered or hurt by. Or if you’re seen as the “serious one”, surprise them by organising an extended time of play and fun.

A reflection on a Christmas surprise story

As Christmas approaches, I can’t help but be drawn to the “surprise” entry of Jesus into the world — a story that is now so familiar but that still, I believe, has the power to surprise. 

Jesus’ surprise birth caused a mix of confusion and bewilderment amongst ordinary folk like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. How could a king be born in a manger rather than a palace? The baby eventually becomes a man, and the surprising birth progresses to a 33 year old life full of surprises. Along the way, we see the ranges of voices that try to solve for this surprising life e.g. “he is a demon”, “he’s a fraud”, “he is the Saviour”. And yet we also see the power of his surprising life to confront deeply held beliefs and interpretations about what it meant to obey God and live out the law of love in the flesh. For example, rather than stone an adulterer that broke the law, Jesus demonstrated how you could protect the dignity of an individual human while also offering a new way to be human.

I’ve been noticing that as I get older, the collection of my past experiences coupled with the demand of increasing responsibility, can quickly lead to a life of planned schedules, predictable patterns and status quo comfort.

I desperately need to be surprised over and over again.

Because surprise creates wonder in me.

Because surprise humbles me.

Because surprise teaches me how little I know.

While also providing a path for me to grow.

Friend, whatever your situation, your heritage, your background, I want you to know that you are dearly loved and I am cheering for you. 

May you have a blessed time this Christmas and I’ll see you on the other side of the new year.

Live whole,


Over To You

Self Reflection

  1. Do you like giving surprises, getting surprised, both or neither?

  2. As you look back on your life, what joys have come through surprise e.g. people you’ve met, jobs, activities, moments? 

  3. How can you be open to and create more surprises for yourself and others in the new year? 


I've love to hear what's on your mind, whether a thought or a question. I read all emails and will respond as appropriate. Message me

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Live whole,


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