How I welcomed surprise and became a “millionaire”: Q&A with Tania Luna

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Tania Luna speaks as part of the TED2013 Talent Search

Tania Luna, the CEO of SurpriseIndustries.com and a psychology instructor at Hunter College in New York, came to the United States as a 6-year-old immigrant from Ukraine. While she and her family thought that they were staying at a hotel when they first arrived in New York, upon returning years later, they discovered that it was actually a homeless shelter. In a moving talk at TED@New York — one of the 293 given as part of the TED2013 Talent Search — Luna describes her life as an immigrant and how thinking about how poor she was as a child makes her feel so exceptionally rich now.

Did your personal story directly, or indirectly, inspire your business?

I think it inspired my business indirectly, in several ways. The first is, because I grew up with a lot of things changing and very little stability — I mean, we never knew where we were going to live next — I became very surprise-averse and sort of a control freak. I wanted to control everything around me. But, on the other hand, through my upbringing, I really got a chance to explore and focus on the little, wonderful, magical surprises in life, like finding toys in the trash; like finding pennies.

I used to do this silly thing when I was a kid where I’d like bury treasure — little wrappers that I’d pick up — in the dirt and then I’d go looking for treasure. Growing up with so little allowed me the luxury of really letting my imagination run wild and I really was privileged in being able to appreciate these little things and surprises. Because I had such low expectations, pretty much anything nice that happened was a wonderful surprise.

And so, on the one hand, I think my upbringing inspired the business because I had an appreciation for experiences and surprises and, on the other hand, so many things had gone wrong in my life that I wanted to be in control of everything. I wanted to surprise others — I didn’t want things to surprise me.

Also, since we grew up with no money, I always wanted to own my own business so that I could be in charge of my finances, thinking that entrepreneurs make a lot of money, though this isn’t necessarily the case. I lost more money than I’ve made, I’m sure, on my business ventures.

My business and my clients have taught me a lot about life because I watch them go through these surprises, and it helps me reconnect with the real important reason I started the business with my sister, which was that it creates these little magical moments of surprise in your life.

Tell me about surprises you about your TED experience so far.

What surprised me is that I thought I was going to do a talk about surprise and not being attached to outcomes, and it was very ironic, but I found out yesterday morning that I wouldn’t be doing a talk about a surprise, but that I should tell my life story instead. So, the first surprise was that I would be giving a talk that I didn’t expect to give, but my old talk was about allowing surprise into your life and how to not be attached to outcomes — so I said, “Okay, the whole moral of my story was to let yourself be surprised, so I’ll do this and let myself be surprised.”

The other thing that’s surprising is that I’m talking about this here, in front of all these people, but my closest friend probably don’t even know a lot of these things about me. There are a lot of these stories that I haven’t thought about, so just when Kelly and Nick were like, “tell your story,” I started thinking, but there was so much that I didn’t remember — like the pizza thing I hadn’t thought about for 20 years! In a lot of ways I feel like it’s a story about things around me, not my story, and I think that’s one of my hesitations to share it, because I feel like I didn’t do anything to deserve the opportunity to share it.

There were times that I was really ashamed of us not having money. You know? Like I remember this one time, we found a bike in the trash and it was my first bike and it was obviously a used bike, and I started to learn to ride a bicycle. The girl who threw it out, her mother had thrown it out and had gotten her a new bike, but the girl lived in our neighborhood and she saw me riding her bike and she like chased me down and threatened me, saying that we had stolen her bike, and I do remember that feeling of shame — of realizing how something that I had become attached to was not my own. I had somebody else’s garbage. And also, being an immigrant — this is more for my sister — but when we moved here people weren’t so accepting of immigrants. In Ukraine, she was the popular girl. Here, people shoved her into the street and people tormented her, so there are those scars still in a lot of ways. So, I get the desire to not bring that up again.

Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.