How To Use The Element Of Surprise To Generate Innovative Content Ideas

How To Use The Element Of Surprise To Generate Innovative Content Ideas

Let’s say that you have a goal but haven’t achieved it yet.

What’s the underlying assumption?

Let’s explore this assumption with the analogy of a map. You’re journeying from Point A to Point B.

You’re wandering around San Francisco with your map.

And you’re using the landmarks and a compass to guide you.

But when you arrive at the landmark destination your map points you to, there’s a mismatch. You thought there was a bus station there, but it’s actually a gas station.

You’re not where you want to be. Either the map is wrong, or you misinterpreted the map.

Confused, you look at the map again.

“Maybe the landmark is around the corner.”

You explore everywhere within a 1-mile radius. Still, you can’t find it.

“Nope, I’m not crazy. I’ve double and triple checked.”

If you still haven’t made it to your destination, what’s the underlying assumption?

Your map is not accurate.

It turns out you’ve been using a map of New York this whole time.

Your map is an analogy for the conceptual models or paradigms that you have regarding your goal. A “mental map,” if you will.

So if you haven’t achieved your goal yet, then the underlying assumption is that your model for how it works is inaccurate.

Because if your model were accurate, then you would’ve made it to your destination (or be moving in an upward trajectory).

Surprising Events Are A Compass For Growth And Development

Researchers explain that the sensation of surprise is caused by a mismatch between the incoming information and your existing model when you get surprised.

This would be like using your map and discovering that the gas station is where the bus station should be. It’s unexpected, and it surprises you.

Though it could be frustrating when this mismatch occurs, it’s also an excellent opportunity to learn and grow.

It helps you fill in the map more accurately. Over time, your map will be accurate enough for you to be able to navigate effectively.

But if you dismiss this unexpected event, then you miss an opportunity to fill in your map with more accurate details.

So within this context, surprising events can be a guiding principle or compass. It signals an opportunity for growth and development since it provides insights to improve your schema and model for achieving your goal.

Documentation: Make Your Content Creation Process Autobiographical

How does this relate to content creation?

Well, my general philosophy towards creating content is “autobiographical” in nature.

In other words, I prefer to document my learning insights, knowledge, experiences, and overall process and then share it with people who can benefit from it.

As Gary V. says, “Documenting your journey versus creating an image of yourself is the difference between saying ‘You should…’ versus ‘my intuition says…’ Get it? It changes everything. I believe that the people who are willing to discuss their journeys instead of trying to front themselves as the ‘next big thing’ are going to win.”

My learning and content creation process are intimately linked together.

When I learn something relevant for my audience, I document it and share it.

When you gather more knowledge and experiences, it’s like filling in your map with more accurate details. Over time, navigating to your destination becomes much more straightforward and accessible.

Once you start improving your map’s quality, you can begin sharing your insights with people you encounter along the way.

  • A family asks for directions to the Pier.
  • Someone who’s starving is looking for the nearest Italian Restaurant.
  • Another person wants to enjoy their afternoon by the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since you’ve accumulated knowledge and experiences, you can help guide them.

This is your content creation process, metaphorically speaking.

As we develop our knowledge and experiences, we can then share these learning insights with others.

It’s autobiographical. It’s a process of documentation.

Use A Surprise Journal To Generate Insights

It can be challenging to discover insights for content ideas.

But we can leverage a surprising event to help us capture these moments in a journal (physical or electronic).

These moments of surprise can facilitate a learning experience that can deepen your understanding, add more detail to your model, and help you navigate the terrain more effectively.

These surprises typically manifest as “unexpected” or “novel” experiences.

When you identify these moments of surprise, it generates insights that you can learn from and share with your audience.

If you’re constantly learning, you can theoretically have endless content ideas to share with your audience.

So how do we capture these insights?

3 Journaling Prompts For Capturing Surprises

Julia Galef — Co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality — popularized the use of a surprise journal.

Its initial intent was to establish “scientific integrity” and help people overcome their confirmation bias.

In her words, “We need to actively look for signs that our assumptions are wrong, because we won’t do so unprompted. […] Surprising observations push science forward.”

Scientific discoveries (and innovative ideas) require curiosity and an open mind. If innovators were only trying to confirm their own beliefs and see the world how they wanted to see it, they wouldn’t innovate much.

This is why it’s valuable to yearn to see the world as clearly as you can. Galef calls this the “scout mindset.” 

Having a surprise journal has a couple of benefits.

First, you begin focusing your attention on unexpected or novel events because you’re looking for them. You become more open and curious.

Second, it’s a gentle way to challenge your existing beliefs and ideas. Instead of saying that you’re “wrong,” it’s framed as a “surprise.”

Here’s her recommended journaling prompts when starting:

Moment of surprise:

Why it was surprising:

What this tells me (i.e., what did you learn?):

Becoming more aware of these surprises will facilitate insights. 

And you can use these insights to develop endless content ideas.


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