A few decades ago, a friend of mine who worked with high schoolers told me a story about an interaction with one of his students. He could tell the teen was feeling a little down, so he asked “what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing much.”
My friend could tell that he wasn’t getting the full truth, so he pressed.
“Well,” the student confessed, “you see, there’s a band I really like, and I thought I was the only one, but I just found out they’re becoming really popular. Now, they’re just ruined for me.”
What the student was conveying is a dynamic that I’ve come to refer to as the “Zeitgeist Blender”. It’s the algorithmic pop culture churn that intevitably takes over and amplifies anything notable. Then, those once notable ideas or art or memes become more notable until they become so familiar that they lose all of their punch. They get blended together into a bland soup of vibe and tone that – over time – causes you to become cynical about what you once loved deeply. Your passion for noteworthy things is channeled into cultural critique.
The official definition of zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” There is a flow to culture, and at any particular point in time if you take a sample you will find certain sentiments, ideas, and trends carrying popular belief along to the point that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s people driving ideas or ideas driving people.
Zeitgeist [ zahyt-gahyst]: the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
We each must participate in the culture we’re rooted in, but that doesn’t mean that we have to fall prey to the Zeitgeist Blender. Instead, we can maintain a posture of objective distance and honed taste. This not only serves to bolster your sanity as a human being in the world but also helps you maintain a clean and effective creative process. Instead of feeding on the cultural regurgitation of others, you can selectively seek original material that awakens your palette.
How do you do this?
Don’t allow algorithms to drive your inputs
Mindfully scrolling Instagram for inspiration is a recipe for creative burnout and cynicism. You are likely to see what you are predicted to interact with because (gasp!) Instagram has no interest in the quality of your creative work. They are simply trying to make money from you. Which, by the way, is fine. However, their incentives are not aligned with yours. So, rather than jumping into the stream that fuels the Zeitgeist Blender, be intentional about seeking stimulus that truly inspires you. Don’t mindlessly scroll. Instead, be like a crate diver at a record shop, seeking what you don’t even know you’re looking for.
Like what you like, unapologetically
If I shared my Spotify playlists with you, you probably wouldn’t be impressed. Very little of the music I regularly listen to would be considered “cutting edge” or “cool” by many people’s standards. And, that’s fine with me. I like what I like. (I’m listening to Chopin’s nocturnes while writing this. Some early 19th century teen is super disappointed right now that I’m ruining their favorite composer for them…) Don’t feel the need to apologize for your taste. You can navigate toward creativity from anywhere, and much of what’s considered “cool” is only so because some tastemaker declared it or the Zeitgeist Blender is chopping it up for consumption.
Look for the deeper patterns and spend time with the source materials
In my world, a ton of books are written based on books that were just written. What I mean is that people cite ideas that are – maybe – ten years old and founded on other ideas that are – maybe – twenty years old. I like to, instead, seek out the source materials. The works that have stood the test of time because they are deemed worthy of attention by generations. They aren’t just cultural regurgitation, but are instead foundational. Seek deeper patterns. Think deeper thoughts. Find deeply streams to swim in.
If you are feeling uninspired, recognize that it could be due to feeding on the output of the Zeitgeist Blender. Don’t allow cultural sentiment to rob you of the joy of surprise and delight.
Don’t chase cool. Define it.
Last modified: April 18, 2023