How to Reopen Your Musical Spirit of Adventure
Recently I was directed to a 2006 interview of Professor Robert Sapolsky by NPR’s Robert Krulwich, courtesy of NPR News. Partially driven by personal reasons, Professor Sapolsky sought to answer the question of whether a person’s advancing age closes their mind to new experiences. He focused his research on music, food and (strangely enough) tongue piercings. In all three cases, Professor Sapolsky found there is an age window whereby one’s willingness to try something new is wide open, a second period where that capacity begins to fade away, and finally an age after which the window is (for most people) closed. These age windows are fixed (that is, they don’t vary by individual) though they do vary by category of experience (e.g., the window periods are different for music than for food). As Krulwich notes:
… commercial radio is built on this principle, that when you are 14 to 21 years old, that’s when you’re wide open to new music and that’s when you find your lifelong Billy Joel or whomever. That interest gradually wanes until, Sapolsky learned, by age 35, if a hot new musician comes around, no matter how wonderful she is, most people don’t care. Their window for musical adventure, it’s closed.
I am 35.
Krulwich’s piece reminded me of a column I read two years ago, written by Paul Shirley of the Flip Collective, lamenting the fact that he was getting older and expecting life to get less fun for the foreseeable future (from that moment until age 46, to be exact). Shirley had just turned 33 at the time of writing the column, making him exactly one week older than me. He claimed that the happiest time of his life was when he was a child right up until age 12, because it was at that age that he began to worry about growing up. As he got older he “noticed that, often, it seemed like I was only trying to achieve something I already had when I was twelve. Joy. Bliss. Happiness.” At 33, he took stock of his life and recognized a feeling he had once before, that what was to come was uncertain but inevitably worse that what was already behind him. As Shirley put it, “I feel a lot like I did at 12. My basketball career is over and I’m not sure what’s coming. My sense is that the next stage of my life is going to grant me less happiness than the previous one.”
Even worse, he felt something he didn’t feel when he was twelve: hopeless. Back then, his mother reassured him that despite his misgivings about the future, there was a lot to look forward to. Now, Shirley was older and wiser. He saw that the things that some people claimed brought them joy – like having kids – actually made them even more miserable than he was. Their “joy” was a convenient trick that those people had played on themselves; they believed that happiness and fulfillment aren’t necessarily the same thing and that despite often being unhappy, they could feel fulfilled, and that being fulfilled meant they were happy. (Yes, I see the circular logic there. As did Paul.) Everywhere Shirley looked he saw miserable, tired, busy people, who settled for jobs, relationships, or cities that they hate. Were these people fulfilled? As Shirley eloquently pointed out, “They don’t seem too happy. And, unless fulfillment and happiness are at opposite ends of an emotions spectrum, they don’t seem too fulfilled, either.”
I admit that in many ways I felt the same way Shirley did. Perhaps early 30’s is the age for men to reflect, discover that they’re turning old, and wave the white flag. No more joy, no more bliss, no more happiness. We can look back nostalgically – or maybe longingly – on our (wasted) youth, reminding ourselves of the feelings we once had while accepting that we will not have them again. Generally speaking, we all come to this conclusion, whether consciously (as Shirley did) or sub-consciously (as most of us likely do), and in my opinion it is this conclusion that results in the closing of the spirit of adventure that Professor Sapolsky described. When your life is open to a world of possibilities, as it is between the ages of 14-21, so is your musical palette. Over time that window begins to close, as the choices we make narrow the paths we can go down. By age 35 it is extremely likely that you are no longer on a journey of discovery, rather you are on a path that at best you hope is building towards something. Even if you don’t hate them (as Shirley suspects you are), you likely have chosen your career, your mate, your place of residence. And your music as well. Certain albums from my high school years – Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Radiohead’s The Bends, the Cure’s Wish, Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, Weezer’s self-titled debut, James’s Laid – have a permanent place in my CD / mp3 / iTunes collection. As I’m sure certain albums from your formative years do too. Again, that is the entire theory upon which commercial radio is based.
I didn’t give in though. I emailed Shirley in response to his column, saying that it’s not true that you can’t have fun at 33, only that, unlike when you’re 12, fun doesn’t come naturally. When you’re a child, you pretty much fall ass-backwards into fun everywhere you turn. As an adult, you have to actively pursue it. For most people it’s easier to stay home and complain – “my job, my relationship, my kids, my life – they all make me miserable.” Not me. I decided to do something about it. Learn something from one of those songs I played to death in high school and start “Doing the Unstuck.” To get unstuck I opened my mind to new adventures. I took flying lessons, went on vacation, and made new friends (and shed some old ones). I went to more concerts, comedy shows, book readings, museum exhibitions and any other cultural event I could think to try. Critically, I never stopped working hard, or taking care of my responsibilities at home. This gave me the freedom to have fun without feeling guilty about it. I wasn’t required by virtue of my age to be unhappy, and I wasn’t tricking myself into believing that unhappiness was a trade off for fulfillment. And anyway, if it was, then to hell with fulfillment – I was going to have fun! I deserved it.
Two years from that exchange with Shirley (and 3 years from my commitment to try new things) and I should be able to tell you how it all worked out. I am having more fun. But am I happy? Am I fulfilled? Unfortunately, those are hard questions to answer. After all, Professor Sapolsky never said it was a bad thing that our tastes become locked in at a certain age. He merely noted it as a fact. Nevertheless, this path of open-mindedness is one that I continue to pursue, and it has yielded tangible positive results in my ability to overcome what should have been the closing of my window, especially as it pertains to music.
I have always been deeply into music yet there have been times that my interest in finding new artists or exploring new genres has waned. Not in the past 3 years though. In that time I have discovered more music than at any time in my life … except maybe high school of course. This has changed my appreciation of music profoundly, and I firmly believe has made me happier. On the one hand are new bands that I didn’t (or hardly) knew about pre-2010 and that are now deeply ingrained favorites of mine: Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, the Decemberists, the Drums, the Dum Dum Girls, the Hives, LCD Soundsystem, Matt & Kim, Lykke Li, Metric, MGMT, the National, Passion Pit, Phoenix, Silversun Pickups, Sleigh Bells, Tokyo Police Club, Two Door Cinema Club, the Vaccines, Vampire Weekend, Wavves, We Were Promised Jetpacks, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Yeasayer. That’s over 20 new artists that captured my attention in just the past three years, all among my favorites and all of whom I wouldn’t have discovered if my window had remained shut. Then there are the older bands that I discovered or re-discovered in the past few years and really dove into in a way that I hadn’t had the time or inclination to do before: CCR, Dinosaur Jr., Janis Joplin, Joy Division / New Order, Mudhoney, the Pixies, the Ramones, the Replacements, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, the Velvet Underground. And while I know I’ll find more new bands that I like but of course don’t know who they will be, I have a to-do list of older artists to “discover”: Lou Reed (post-Velvets), Sonic Youth, Husker Dü, Television, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Iggy & the Stooges, and lots more.
I am in no position to disagree with Professor Sapolsky’s claim that age generally quashes our spirit of adventure. I am, however, living proof that with a fair amount of effort that natural tendency can be overcome. It is my belief that our unconscious window of willingness to try new things – be it music, food, even piercings – is directly tied to our conscious outlook on life and choices. There is a force that keeps the wheel of your life turning, moving forward, like a boulder coming down a hill. This wheel is connected to your “windows,” which close with increasing speed until they are completely shut. The only way to keep the window open is to fight the momentum, keep the boulder from advancing forward. It takes a lot of effort, and a dedication to not let yourself passively get run over, but once you can get that wheel to stop, the opportunity to experience new things – to have more fun – awaits.
Sorry Paul, you can never be 12 years old again. But you can make things different at 35 if you try. Whether it’s actually worth it or whether the people who are fooling themselves with “fulfillment” are better off … I don’t know. Time will tell I suppose. But I’ll always have better taste in music (and a more extensive iPod playlist) than them!
 Professor Sapolsky is a neuroscientist at Stanford University.