Most gift-giving gatherings this time of year have a bit of an absurd quality to them. Family members make wish lists for each other of exactly what they want, and there’s an implied understanding that you need to stick with the list. But, then, what’s the point? You could avoid the hassle and all just buy yourself what you want, right? (Or save your money and just have great conversations.)

“What do you want for Christmas?” you’re asked. “Surprise and delight would be nice”, I want to say.

But surprise and delight is hard. Which is why most gift-giving moments feel more like an obligation as we stay safe and simply get what everyone asks for. The fear of the clunker gift is real, but it’s a risk worth taking to keep hope alive for moments of genuine surprise and delight. Caution is the devil, right? That caution may keep you from being the one giving unwanted gifts, but it will also keep you from doing something remarkable, like offering genuine surprise and delight.

Our 13-year-old nephew is 13 in the best way anyone can be 13. He’s smart and kind, but he’s kind of cool, too. At family gatherings he tends to disappear and avoid the awkwardness of close quarters with all the relatives as best he can. (I did that, too, when I was a teenager. Okay, I still do that now sometimes.) You’ve got to work to get him to talk at meals, and he’s not quick to smile. You’ve got to earn the smile.

But he loves playing guitar and lights up when he’s talking about music. He’s taught himself how to play, and he’s pretty good. He’s become really focused on all things guitar, playing in seemingly every spare moment and regularly listening to cool music. (We share an appreciation of John Mayer, and I’ve earned a cool point or two just from that.)

His hero, though, is Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Grohl is the man. My wife and I found this out while talking with him at Thanksgiving. We were curious and wanted to know what gets him excited, what he’s into.

Well, when it came time to find a Christmas gift for him, we didn’t even check his wish list. I started wondering what a 13-year-old guitar-playing Dave Grohl fan might enjoy. After some online searches, we stumbled across a print of a great Dave Grohl quote. We bought it and framed it and wrapped it for our nephew’s gift.

At our family Christmas gathering last week, we were going around the circle watching each person open a gift. When my nephew’s turn came, my wife and I watched eagerly as he unwrapped our present. He held up the print and began reading the quote, with a bit of a quizzical, “What is this?” kind of expression on his face, as if he was bracing himself to summon a polite response to a random, cheesy, unwished-for gift. Then, when he read to the bottom of the quote and saw “Dave Grohl”, his expression transformed, and his face lit up with what clearly was surprise and delight.

He smiled at us and said something about Grohl being a hero. He kept that unforced grin for a moment, and we knew we had done it. Success! Surprise and delight. And we were as delighted at the giving of a thoughtful gift as he was in receiving it. Probably more so.

It could have bombed and left us and him wishing we had just gotten him a DVD or an iTunes card. But it was the moment of the season for us so far.

Trying to put yourself inside someone else and divine what might delight is hard work and has low-percentage success. Most people don’t know what would delight themselves, even. Henry Ford famously said that if he asked people what they wanted they would have said “A faster horse.”

Apple is the behemoth it is now for its market-defying commitment to create products that trump conventional wisdom and delight in their details. They do not poll customers or rely on market consultants to determine what to make next. They don’t ask for a “wish list” from the market. They aim for awesome. What would delight them to make? And what would put smiles on the faces of their customers?

Whether it’s in giving gifts to family and friends or creating products and experiences in your work, aiming for surprise and delight will pay off and reward the effort required. Or not. You could crash and burn.

But aim for awesome, people. And cheer on those who forsake their caution in the attempt to create a remarkable moment and give a gift worth talking about.

And rock on, Dave Grohl.

IMG_8521

The Dave Grohl print that won Christmas