It was 1992 when Miss Burstadt, our music teacher, came to class with a VCR tape that she couldn’t wait to play for us. She had taped a performance by a band called Nirvana on Saturday Night Live. I wish there was a picture that captured just how ambivalent my classmates and I must have been at that moment.
She pushed play and we watched in awe as this Kool-Aid-haired guy played Smells Like Teen Spirit. My eighth grade mind was completely blown apart. I wondered,
“How was this even music?”
You couldn’t understand the words. It was so loud. Why were they so angry? How could our teacher, a woman who is supposed to understand music, appreciate something so different, so obviously terrible?
I decided right there that I was not going to be a Nirvana fan.
Despite my determination to dismiss it, the performance stuck with me in the following days and weeks. My teenage brain couldn’t reconcile what it had experienced.
I had to hear him again.
In those days if I wanted to listen to rock music I had to sneak it on my Walkman. Our family radio was reserved for civilized, classical music. So when I heard Nirvana again it was on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 which I secretly listened to under my bed on the weekends.
I listened again expecting to be re-convinced that Nirvana was junk. But the second time it didn’t sound as foreign. That year the song would reach number 6 on the charts so I heard it a lot more. With each listen it got a little better. Eventually I had to admit that maybe I was wrong.
Miss Burstadt got it. Her deep knowledge of music allowed her to see genius that I missed. I lacked the skill to recognize greatness. I had learned the unteachable.
I wish I could say that now that I am an adult I am better at recognizing greatness. I still make mistakes. The only difference between today and the 14 year old version of me (besides the braces, glasses, and pimples) is that I am self-aware enough to try and compensate for my shortcomings.
Unless you are an early adopter with flawless taste, your first instincts will always be untrustable. Getting better at this requires some deliberate brain bending. Here are the patterns I try to follow…
1. Disgust is a signal that you should pay attention to.
Recently my son started playing a game called Agar.io. When he first showed it to me I made fun of it. I thought he would realize how dumb it was and abandon it. To my dismay he didn’t stop.
Finally, I just watched him play. I was surprised by how much strategy was involved. He revealed strategy and nuances that I completely missed. I was amazed by the compexity of such a simple game. I talk about simplicity all the time as a virtue to strive for in design. And yet when I should have seen it as clear as day represented in this game I missed it.
My son got it. His young mind wasn’t biased like my old one.
When you feel disgust try not to overreact. The person/idea/art is taking you out of your comfort zone. This is a good thing. If our opinions are so insecure that we overreact with disgust, that is a sign that we need to reevaluate them.
2. Be patient and live with the uncomfortable feeling.
Here is a rule of thumb about music. If you like song on the first listen it is a keeper. If a song doesn’t engage you at all I ignore it. But if you hate it on first listen pay close attention. Listen to it at least three more times before judging it. Much of my favorite music has come from being able to outlast the discomfort of the first listens.
If that sounds easy, it’s not. I was just reading a friend describe how after watching a documentary on Amy Winehouse he realized how wrong his first impressions of her were. I wrote her off as a drug addict, too, becuase it was more convenient to ignore her than give her music a chance.
Now I have to take my own medicine and check out her documentary.
If art is going to change the world it has to start out uncomfortable. If it goes down easy it won’t change us. We can be late to the party or we can invest the time it takes to recognize greatness. The longer you engage with something challenging, the less foreign it becomes.
3. Appall can transform into fanaticism.
The worst preview for a movie I have ever seen was for Warm Bodies. It looked like it was going to be a teen romance about a zombie. And it is. I remember actually feeling offended by the concept. I watched it primarily because of how terrible I thought it was going to be. Turns out it was terrific. I still can’t believe they pulled it off.
Observe the people who rave about the thing you dislike. Chances are there is a massive fanbase that is eager to teach you about their passion. The early adopters can teach us much about how to think about the new thing. What do they understand that you are missing? How did they discover this thing before you? What stories are they telling themselves?
Pop culture is one thing, but pre-judging also creeps into other more critical parts of my life. I make a snap judgement about the idea of a co-worker. I instantly hate the person standing in front of me in line for no reason. I discount a person’s opinion because of their appearance. Again and again I make snap judgements that come back to bite me.
Being repeatedly wrong either makes you humble or it turns you into a miserably stubborn person. I really hope I can take my own advice. I don’t want to keep missing greatness.