Savor the Surprises

Alexander Fleming, Photo Credit Historic UK

I was recently listening to Mike Maples interview Andy Rachleff about the search for product-market fit, which is fitting, since Andy coined the term. Andy recounted a pearl of wisdom that Scott Cook had once given him: when doing customer research, savor the surprises. A few years into founding Intuit, Scott uncovered that while QuickBooks was created for personal finance, half their users were businesses. Why? Because most small businesses lacked formal accounting expertise, they preferred simple software.

Savoring surprises is a simple but powerful framing, because it forces reflection. It’s a great question for a job interview (“When you first got to Google, what surprised you?”) or at a cocktail hour (“What surprised you most about Tokyo?”). Who would want to hire or hang out with someone who answers “Nothing”?

Surprises are the bits of data we don’t expect. It is cognitively taxing to retain these bits, rather than burying them to confirm what we think we already know. Savoring surprise is at the heart of the beginner’s mindset. And it is the essence of learning and discovery.

In September 1928, a scientist returned from a two-week vacation and found a mold had contaminated his bacterial culture, and unexpectedly, killed the bacteria around it. Alexander Fleming savored this surprise, rather than ignore it, and it ultimately led to his discovery of penicillin. As he later put it “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”

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