Why to Be Surprised: The Power of Not Knowing

This weekend, on a flight out to Bend, Oregon to film am exciting project (coming soon), I clumsily dumped the manuscript for my upcoming book, Winning Well, on the lap of an older gentleman with sparkling eyes sitting beside me. We were about an hour into the flight, and up until then, neither of us had said a word–and quite frankly, we both seemed just fine with that. #thankgoodnesswegotpastthat

When I apologized and tried to recover the paper that was all over his feet and lap (#nexttimeuseabinderclip), he just seemed annoyed. Now, I know he was processing. A few minutes after my scramble, he said softly, “You writing a book?”

Now, as you can imagine, there’s nothing a woman like me wants to talk about more during this frantic final editing journey than my book.  In fact, when I check out at the grocery store and they say “paper or plastic,” I’m inclined to tell them “I like paper because it reminds me of my book which will also be available in Kindle, which I guess, is kind-of like plastic.”

I lit up past the embarrassment.

“Why, yes, I am. How could you tell?” I smiled, glad to have finally connected past the scramble.

“What’s it about?”  I launched into the Cliff’s notes version of Winning Well and getting results without losing your soul. (Hmmm… I wonder how I get Cliff to cover Winning Well. No, no, that would be a tragedy).

“Oh that’s awesome.” He shared. “I’m doing a talk at my daughter’s work next month. I’m trying to pick up everything I can about leadership. I’ve been watching TED talks. Trying to nail down my ideas.”

I jotted down his email, promised to send resources, and started to ask questions about the nature of his talk.

Imagine how surprised I was to find I was talking to  Frederick Gregory, astronaut and a NASA senior administrator who led the International management team responsible for the International Space Station (among other significant leadership feats and awards).

More to come on my new friend Fred. We’re connecting again later this week.

For now I’ll leave you with this piece of advice.

The biggest life and leadership lessons come when you’re surprised. 

Think about it. when you go on vacation, what stories do you tell when you get back home? The times when everything went just as planned? Or the more awkward moments, like when you had to ski down the blacks with your baby on your back because you made a wrong turn (been there), or followed your GPS only to find “You have arrived” put you deep into a dead-end of a National forest (#myweekend).

How we react, and what we do during the times of biggest surprise
are the moments that most shape us. 

Astronaut Gregory shared how surprised he was to find that the Russians he was working with during that tense time had some of the same childhood experiences as he, hearing a siren and being instructed to climb under the desk to practice in case the “bad guys” attacked. “Oh, we thought YOU were the bad guys.”

Being open to the surprise of common experiences helps us accelerate understanding and facilitate identification of a common goal.

When we’re so sure in what we know–when we let confidence trump humility–we lose the ability to learn from surprise. We can’t win well from that space.

Imagine the power of beginning each day looking forward to something that will surprise us, and expand our perspective.

Posted in confident humility, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Love this post Karin! Those surprise meetings that end up deepening our perspectives, growing our understanding, and introducing us to fascinating people.

    My cells are dancing as I think of all that I’ve gained through surprises and in anticipation of the rest of this story!

    • Chery, Thanks so much. I can only imagine all the surprises you have had on your exciting international adventure.

  2. Well said! “Oh, we thought you were the bad guys” sounds like it could be the chapter title for your next book. The one after this one. Again you surprise me by writing from story instead of from principle. Very inspiring!

    • David, Oh…. that would be a great chapter! So much that could be done with that! Thanks for the inspiration. Of course the thought of the NEXT book at this point 😉

  3. I mentioned this thought in my last blog though with a little twist.

    “Be confident about not knowing.”

    That’s one of my best assets as a coach. That’s right. Being confident about not having all the answers. Being curious about how the client thinks.

    People are shocked when I tell them one of my greatest attributes as a coach and person is being confident about not having everything figured out.

    • Steve,
      That’s so powerful! I love it. :Be confident in not knowing” and staying open is a great approach for leaders, coaches, spouses, parents…

    • LaRae, Thanks so much. I think part of what I heard from Fred is to view surprise as the blessing, even when it feels like conflict. Amen.

  4. What a wonderful chance meeting, Karin! I think more people meet on plane rides than anywhere. There is something about being more vulnerable up in the air. When we are more willing to be vulnerable, we are more willing to welcome a surprise. I look forward to hearing all about Fred!

    So proud of all you are doing, Karin!!

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