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On Appreciation

There’s an overwhelming desire experienced by most people — myself very much included — to improve one’s sense of discriminatory predilection, social acceptance through association, and intaking of only the highest quality inputs.

Which is a fancy way of saying we all want to feel like we have good taste. Our music, our food and drink, our sense of style, our appreciation of art: It’s all representative of who we are, to some degree or another, so it makes sense that we define ourselves by these preferences.

For example, my preference for microbrews over more widely available beers comes with it the implication that I appreciate finer drinks produced by smaller purveyors, and hints that I’m somehow ‘in the know’ about what’s new and fresh because you can’t just walk into a midwestern Walmart and grab the most recent seasonal by a small brewery doing small runs out of the Pacific Northwest.

Similarly, my preference for indie acoustic folk rock over traditional country music says something about who I am, where I come from, the types of rhythms and lyrics I can relate to, and the culture with which I most closely associate myself.

Like me, most people don’t make these choices consciously; we like what we like. We’re also not generally thinking, “Liking this kind of music makes me seem like this kind of person, so I’d better start liking something else.” It’s a passive choice.

But passive or not, in many cases these choices don’t stop at what we like, they lead to a denunciation of anything outside of what we deem to be the choicest options. If you don’t like microbrews, you’re drinking swill. If you don’t like indie rock, you’re not a music connoisseur, like me. You lack good taste.

Though common, this is also a dangerous stand to take. Defining yourself by what you’re not is non-ideal to begin with, but by drawing a line in the sand and saying, “This is good, that is bad,” you’re also limiting yourself to liking and dismissing particular things based on incredibly vague categorizations.

If I were to say, for example, “I love all music except for rap and country,” I’m defining myself in terms of what I don’t like. If a country song comes along that I can’t get enough of, I may experience an internal sense of cognitive dissonance — two conflicting ideas about who I am and what I like straining to define me as a person.

What’s worse, establishing yourself as the kind of person who doesn’t like country music is like establishing yourself as the kind of person who doesn’t like the color magenta. It’s not something that will generally impact your day-to-day life, but why set yourself up to be irritated whenever it’s around? Far better to determine your thoughts on each magenta-colored object — and country song — on a case-by-case basis.

But how to avoid creating such walls around ourselves and our potential to experience and enjoy new things, especially when doing so is baked in to most of our personalities?

One solution that I’ve found works pretty well is to focus on appreciation rather than disassociation.

What this means in practice is rather than deciding you don’t like a subset of things because they don’t fit within your ideal specifications, you try to appreciate it for what it is, not what you wish it was.

Let’s say you’re not a fan of pop music. Instead of loudly complaining when Justin Beiber plays on the radio, a focus on appreciation means you judge it within the context of what it is: pop music. And pop music has different goals than, say, underground electronica or garage band EPs. The premise of pop music is to be widely popular (hence, ‘pop’), catchy and easily segment-able (for commercial use), and simple enough to appeal to a demographic of people who jump from trend to trend like they’re playing hopscotch. The performance aspect is also important, as most pop stars have to be entertainers; not just singers, songwriters, or whatever. In other words, the poetry is less important than the presentation.

Thinking of it in those terms, Beiber’s stuff is actually pretty damn amazing. It’s not my favorite, and it’s not what I’ll typically listen to when I have a choice in the matter, but I can appreciate it for what it is. And being able to do that has allowed me to listen to more pop music and find some stuff that actually is to my taste.

This change in approach has made all the difference for me. I didn’t immediately discount an entire genre of music as ‘bad,’ which would have ensured that I’d never give it a fair shot at appealing to me on a level playing field with everything else. By appreciating what pop music was and wasn’t trying to be, I was able to hear it in a new context, and apply to it different standards.

Will this work for everything and everyone? I’m sure it won’t. And it shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to have no standards, because ideally you do develop preferences and refine your palette for all kinds of input as time goes on.

But giving yourself permission to appreciate as many different things as possible — be they foods or music genres or art movements or whatever — is like giving yourself permission to appreciate as many different colors as possible. It opens up a much larger world to explore and experience, and being able to roam free is very much preferable to fencing yourself in and closing the gates.