How to Anticipate the Unexpected
by Philip Yaffe
the 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.
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.
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.” Amen.
For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, Brussels,
Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is
available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (amazon.com).