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How to anticipate the unexpected
How to anticipate the unexpected
by Philip Yaffe
According to the old adage, “Travel is broadening”.
In other words, when you leave your home and go somewhere else, your mind will expand because of the differences you will see. For me, the most valuable, mind-expanding differences are not the big ones that you might be prepared for by reading and education. They the little things that you would never even consider, so that they take you completely by surprise.
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I never traveled because my parents were small business owners and had no time to go away for vacation. I was in fact 16 years old the first time I set foot outside of Southern California. After 10 years of planning and disappointments, we finally drove across the country to visit relatives who lived in a small town in Maine.
A few days before our departure, I came down with a severe case of mononucleosis. This illness makes you incredibly weak and constantly tired, so all you want to do is sleep. We just about decided not to go, but since it was a trip we had been planning for decade, we decided to give it a try.
After three days on the road (I had spent most of the time sleeping on the back seat), we arrived in St. Louis, where we also had relatives. St. Louis is on the Mississippi River and this was early July. If you know anything about St. Louis, you know it is an excellent place not to be in summer. It was extremely hot and extremely humid. However, since this was the first time -- and probably the last time -- I would ever see these relatives, I spent the next four days touring the city, picnicking, swimming, playing tennis, and engaging in a host of other strenuous activities.
Within a half-hour after leaving St. Louis, I completely collapsed and slept almost constantly the next two days before arriving in New York. The four days in St. Louis were a revelation. Before arriving, I could hardly move; after leaving I could hardly move. But while there, I was active beyond all expectations. I simply had never imagined just how much a person can actually achieve through sheer desire and will power.
A couple of weeks later, we were visiting with my Aunt and Uncle in Maine. One day my brother and I were walking around the town just to see what it looked like. We went into a local supermarket. Our attention was drawn to a big display of watermelons. Two things struck us. First, they didn’t look like the watermelons we had in California. Instead of being big and oval, they were long and sausage-like. But the real shocker was the price. You will have to adjust the figures; after all, this was a half-century ago (1958). The sign said 10 cent a pound. My brother let out a cry of dismay. “Ten cents a pound! That’s robbery!”
A man who was standing a short distance away came over and asked him, “Tell me son, where are you from?” “California.” “And what do you pay for watermelons this time of year?” “Oh, about 2 cents a pound, sometimes 1 cent a pound.”
The man looked my brother straight in the eyes and said, “Little boy, you’re lying to me. You’re lying. You’re lying”. It was a case of total incomprehension. The man simply couldn’t believe how cheap watermelons were in California. And we simply couldn’t believe how expensive they were in Maine.
However, the pièce de résistance of my revelations happened a few days later. We were on a lake, swimming, boating and barbequing when a thunder storm broke. Everyone ran into the house to get out of the rain. Everyone but me. I was transfixed, literally rooted to the spot. I stood there with the rain pouring down on me for what seemed like several minutes before I too finally ran into the house.
Why this strange reaction?
You need to understand that in Los Angeles, it is normal that not a single drop of rain falls in the city from about the first of May until the end of September. Because it was the only thing I had ever experienced, I grew up believing the word “summer” literally meant “hot and dry”. It was August, and it was raining! To me, this was against nature. It was like the sun one day suddenly rising in the west and setting in the east, rather than rising in the east and setting in the west as it had always done.
When I got back to Los Angeles, I was a changed person. Being a scientist by nature -- I loved mathematics and physics -- I was naturally skeptical about things. But I had not fully realized just how much there was to be skeptical about. Having experienced somewhere else, I better understood that things that seem normal and natural in one environment can be bizarre and unnatural in another.
This revelation has served me well ever since. It certainly helped me a few years later when I spent two-and-a-half years in Tanzania, in the East African bush. This was an environment not only different from Los Angeles, but different almost beyond imagination. I virtually lived in a mud hut, suffered through a drought, saw leprosy, and contracted both malaria and dysentery.
But the most surprising thing was, Tanzania had a one-party socialist government. Being a devout believer in multi-party, free enterprise democracy, this was an anathema to me. However once on site, I discovered that Tanzania's one-party, socialist state not only worked, but for this poor developing country, this "bizarre" form of government was absolutely necessary.
The world is full of unexpected things. The best way to deal with them is to “anticipate the unexpected”. In others words, we must always be prepared to examine something that surprises us before criticizing or rejecting it. Otherwise, we are likely to make some serious mistakes of judgment.
I think the importance of this lesson was best summed up by a country preacher in the American Deep South. In his distinctive southern drawl, he once told his congregation: “It ain’t what you don’t know that causes problems. It’s what you do know that just ain’t so.”
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or even third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. His new book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional will be published in March 2010, and will be available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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