I had arrived home in Salt Lake City from a business trip, and had just stepped off the plane when my cell phone rang. It was my wife. We exchanged pleasantries when she asked me, if instead of her picking me up which she usually did, could I catch a taxi to get home. “Sure,” I said. I then asked if there was something wrong with the car.
“No,” was her cautious reply.
After more than 30 years of marriage, I could immediately tell when something was different by the slightest change in the tone of my wife’s voice. Fortunately, I could sense there was no emergency. But, as for anything else, I was left guessing. So, my natural reaction was to probe.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Cheri, what’s up?” I repeated with a little bit of excitement in my voice.
Her reply was quick and to the point. “I’m on my way to St. George. I’m running for political office, and I give my first campaign speech tomorrow morning at the Republican Caucus.”
I was completely caught off guard. My first reaction was reflexive, “You’re what?” My follow-up was more focused but filled with just as much emotion, “When did you decide to do this?”
Her response was classic, if not confounding, “I made the decision to run about three hours ago.”
Then with a tone that suggested she had anticipated how I would react, she continued her quick cadence, “Roger, I can’t tell you everything right now, I’m driving. But, I’ll call you when I get to St. George, if it’s not too late. There’s a dinner in the refrigerator. Put it in the microwave. You may want to catch a plane tomorrow morning and join me. I love you. Bye.”
Needing to Sit Down
“Did she just hang up on me?”
I was in Concourse B of the Salt Lake City International Airport and was so stunned over what I had just heard that I had to sit down. I began to rehearse and respond mentally to what she had said.
“She’s running for political office. What office?”
“She’ll call me if it’s not too late. That means she probably won’t call me.”
“She made the decision three hours ago. That’s ridiculous. She’s on her way to St. George? That’s even more ridiculous. That’s 400 miles away.”
“Bye? I can’t believe she just said bye and hung up.”
Without hesitation, I called her back. But, to my next big surprise she didn’t answer.
“Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe this!”
As I sat there, slowly my shock turned to astonishment. Upon thinking about what I should do, I realized Cheri had thought it all out. All that was left for me to do was what she had told me to do: take a taxi home, put the meal in the microwave, call my travel agent and purchase a plane ticket for St. George, and join her.
And, that’s exactly what I did. Why? I had no other options. She had hit me with a BOLD SURPRISE. There was nothing I could think of doing other than surrendering to the situation my wife had created.
A Little Bit of Commentary
Before I continue, some commentary is needed at this point. First, I wonder if I would have been in the city that day, if Cheri ever would have decided to take that dramatic turn and travel 400 miles to deliver a campaign speech. Outside of running for student body secretary in high school, she had never run for any kind of political office. If my suspicion is correct, I could conclude that more than likely she had considered me a barrier to what she had wanted to do for many years. So with me out of town, she probably sensed that if she had not seized upon that opportunity at that moment, she probably never would have.
If any of the above even comes close to being true, then the last issue she would have had to figure out that day was how she was going to handle me once I arrived home. As she pondered it, she probably concluded that conferring with me before the fact would have been unwise. Talking to me before she made the decision would have compromised her ability to control all the variables. Hence, it’s not unreasonable to assume, that she probably made the decision, decided to quickly get on the road, call me in route, surprise me enough to throw me off balance, talk fast( thus not giving me a chance to respond), make the conversation short, tell me she loved me, hang up, and turn her phone off.
I’ve been a management consultant for twenty-five years, and if there is anything I know, it’s that pulling off a bold surprise is the most effective way to accomplish quick and decisive business objectives. I’ve been consulting clients on the power of the bold surprise to catch competitors off guard for decades. Ironically, I had become the recipient of one at the hands of my wife.
The Army teaches the absolute importance of striking “an enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared.” Well, I wasn’t my wife’s enemy (I don’t think) but her surprise decision to run for office did indeed catch me completely unprepared. And because I was so unprepared, I was left with few, if any, possibilities to effectively counter. As a person who makes his living as a professional strategist, I have to admire how well my wife had executed her strategy.
Cheri ran for National Committee Woman for the Republican Party from the State of Utah. She lost that election, but later went on to be elected President of The Utah Federation of Republican Women. In that capacity she worked closely with many of the major political figures in Utah, and was an occasional visitor to Washington D.C.’s congressional offices and The White House for National Republican Women events.
After my adjustment to Cheri’s political life, it was still hard for me to see her involved in activities that often were filled with tension. Democracy is a loud and messy business. For example, when she would be criticized for some position she had taken, I would get so upset that I would be tempted to lash out at her critics. I began to notice, however, that the more heated things would become, the calmer she would remain. She seemed to enjoy and thrive under the hot glare of political give and take.
Our relationship seemed to be enriched as well. When I would give my opinion on a subject and say it in a manner that made it sound like I was reading from Moses’ diary, she developed the habit of saying, “can you produce any hard facts to back up your position?” Politics was teaching her that more often than not, people speak from ideological conviction more than from objective analysis. So she challenged people to think more deeply and search for facts before they spoke. This had a spillover effect in our marriage. Our personal discussions became more focused and intellectually stimulating. Sometimes we agreed with each other, while at other times we merely agreed to disagree.
Over the years of Cheri’s political activity we would find ourselves in the most interesting places, interacting with the most interesting people, on the most interesting issues of the day. For example, there was one time when we found ourselves at the United Nations in New York City, where Cheri engaged one of the great legal minds in the country on the subject of Polygamy. The law professor was of the opinion that for various reasons Polygamy should be legalized in America. My wife strongly disagreed. For about an hour they went at it. Finally the professor said, “Cheri, you’ve argued your position well.” Indeed, the soft spoken woman I had married had become a disciplined debater.
When Cheri finally stepped away from the political arena, 10 years had passed since that eventful phone call. The Bold Surprise she had executed had turned out to be one of the most important experiences of both of our lives. The greatest irony of all was that it was I who was sad when she stepped down. So were many others. She had made an important contribution. At the convention where she ended her term as President of the Utah Federation of Republican Women she received a standing ovation, a hard thing to pull off with that politically charged group.
The vast majority of life is built on routine. Routine is the building block of stability, which in turn facilitates the creation of an environment where everything from families to businesses can be nurtured and allowed to fully mature. But, as in most things, there are tradeoffs. In this case, routine can and often does lead to getting caught in ruts.
When you’re in a rut, you get in the habit of doing things without knowing why you do them. You carry out a function almost automatically because it has become part of your routine. As a result, whether with family, friends or business competitors, you become predictable, and, lamentably, exploitable. When this occurs it is imperative, in my humble opinion, to consider changing the course of your life. Those individuals I most admire, are those who have an uncanny ability to pull off surprises, thus breaking the habits of predictability.
If you find yourself in a rut, almost anything new you do will be surprising. Most people don’t know how to react when overtaken by a surprise, even less so when it is a BOLD SURPRISE. More often than not, we go along and accept the new conditions that the bold surprises bring.
I have always been fascinated as to how fast the execution of a bold surprise changes things. Would I recommend you consider giving it a try, if you feel like you’re in a rut and need to break out? I think it’s worth giving it a thought.