unexpected

Expect the Unexpected

Carl Sagan“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan (via Goodreads)


In sixth grade science students are still learning the basics of the scientific process, which in our curriculum involves six steps: problem, hypothesis, materials, procedure, data, conclusion. We really try to hammer home all these parts in sixth grade, so that in seventh and eighth they can begin designing their own experiments with control and experimental sets and carefully measured data.

When we start any lab we alway start with the problem, which is a question that the students hope be able to answer by the end of the lab. Then comes the hypothesis, which is the prediction (educated guess) to the question they’ve asked. We ask them to write down what they think is going to happen and why.

Later on during the conclusion portion students are usually asked to reflect back on their hypothesis and decide if they were right or not. Often times they feel that if they have gotten the hypothesis wrong then they have somehow failed the experiment, but this is totally backward. It is through the observation of the unexpected that scientific knowledge is advanced. If the experiment goes exactly according to plan and the hypothesis is totally correct, then we have learned nothing. It is only by observing what we don’t expect that we learn anything at all.

Of course the sad part is most people only see what they want to see, which is what they expect to see. When you expect the unexpected you may actually learn something new, so search for the unexpected, not only in the science lab, but in all aspects of life. Expect the unexpected.

Science experiments can be truly amazing! (by George Thomas on Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Overcoming Expectations

Our daily expectations are those unconsidered expectations about daily life, like the fact that the sun will rise in the morning, that my morning coffee will be delicious and probably the highlight of my day, and the fact that I will sit in mind-numbing traffic for an hour as I attempt to drive 12 miles to work. These are the expectations that we take for granted, the things we expect due to the fact they have become such regular parts of our daily lives. Expectations like these make life boring, repetitive, and depressing.  It is simple brain reflex that causes the human mind to attempt to predict what is going to happen, whether you’re watching television, reading a book, or going to work for the ten thousandth day in a row. But how boring is it to know exactly what is going to happen all the time?

If everything always plays out exactly like you think it should, then you have in essence learned nothing new. It is through the serendipitous discovery of the unexpected that the human mind finds meaningful existence in this sad little hamster wheel known as life. My 6th grade science students are always required to make a hypothetical prediction before they start each lab experiment, and sometimes they get disappointed at the end if their hypothesis is not correct, like they have failed somehow. But I always tell them that if your hypothesis is correct you have learned nothing. It is only when the hypothesis doesn’t match expectations that we have actually discovered something new. I think that this is part of the reason most people find traveling to new places and cultures so invigorating. Everything is new and unexpected. Each today truly becomes a new day with endless possibility.

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But then there are more profound expectations, the long term plans we have for ourselves and the people we care about. The path we follow toward those expectations may be unexpected. My Grandma wrote me this letter (and many others also) when I was a “hopeless” surf bum living in my van. I surfed every day and worked as a room service waiter and bartender in Santa Cruz. It was by far the happiest time of my life. I had almost zero stress, and hours of free time to write and read every single day. Even living in a costly environment like Santa Cruz I had a very low overhead. A post office box, a storage unit, and my 1975 Chevy molester van with my surfboard and coffee pot felt like all I needed. Every couple weeks I would drive up or down the coast to hang out on some empty beach or campground for a couple days. I was rich in time but poor in money. In many respects I was the most successful person I knew.

But eventually the pull of more profound expectations made me question my own happiness. I wanted more money and more prestige, like these things would make me happier. I wanted people to not think of me as a dirty vagrant living in his van. I wanted a regular job with a regular paycheck. And as I returned to school and became more and more professionally successful, a little bit more of my happiness withered away. I transformed into what other people expected me to become, but it was never really what I expected for myself. It almost felt like I had given up, succumbed to the debilitating pull of my family’s expectations for me.

Now I work more hours and make more money than ever before, but the measure of my happiness seems to be inversely related to these factors. I have saved and scratched to buy a home only to find myself now more in debt than any other point of my life. Those paltry maxed out credit cards from my days living in my van feel like the good old days of financial stability.

I’m not sure why I saved this letter from my Grandma. I reflect on it sometimes to remember where I was and where I want to be, and remind myself that the path we follow to live up to our expectations is not always the path we expect. The letter used to make me angry, but now it makes me laugh. It’s not that I necessarily enjoy having the last laugh, but I think I will in this case, even if it means I am laughing at myself.


Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Great Expectations

(This was an unpublished post that I rewrote. It didn’t end up like I expected. They rarely do, and that’s a good thing.)

Sandals, Camera and Great Expectations (by Elizabeth Thomsen on Flickr)