Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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The Year of Whispered Warnings

In Manhattan’s Times Square, over half a million revelers cheered as the twelve-hundred-pound illuminated silver ball perched high above them began its flirtatiously slow, seventy-foot descent marking the final seconds of 1957. When it finally it came, there were screams, kisses, toasts, and Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne. Few noted that the ball had flickered off before the bottom and that the 1958 sign had sparked on a trifle too early. The glitch reflected warnings offered by the year just passed about many things that were no longer as they had been.

The Economy. After the Second World War there were more than enough new jobs for skilled and unskilled workers. Luck, timing, progressive governments, hard work, unionized labour, and the burgeoning manufacturing sector had helped create a thriving, urban middle class and economy that had never been so good for so long.

In 1957, however, growth fell from a decade of 6% per year to an anaemic 1%. Paramount among its causes was that Europe and Asia had rebuilt and needed less of our stuff. Our monetary policy was being clumsily adjusted to meet the new reality. The good times that many had come to believe would never end were ending. A recession was only months away.

Popular Culture. In 1957, for only the second year, rock ‘n’ roll gave voice to the young or young at heart who, perhaps unconsciously, rejected the white, Christian, male attitudes that reflected post-Depression and post-war cravings for calm, safety, and stability. Elvis Presley was rock ‘n’ roll’s most popular star. His concerts were always sold out and one Presley record or another was atop Billboard’s 1957 charts for 25 weeks. He epitomized everything that rock ‘n’ roll offered and threatened: a heterosexual in a gold lamé suit, a poor kid in a Cadillac, a white man singing black, and a mama’s boy who suggested all that mamas warned their daughters about.

The Year of Wispered Warnings

Elvis in Toronto, 1957

The flip side of rock ‘n’ roll was the Beat movement. The existential yearning at Beat’s core was expressed in Jack Kerouac’s scorching novel On The Road, published in September 1957. It followed Sal and Dean’s futile search for meaning in an America they found suffering from the emptiness of middle class consumerism.

Beat met rock ‘n’ roll in July 1957 when, at a Liverpool church fête, sixteen-year-old John Lennon met fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney. The name of the band they formed – the Beatles – was a pun that poked fun at their music while nodding to the Beats.

When times get tougher, pop culture always gets fluffier. When rebellions begin the grown ups fight back. Presley’s January 1957 TV performance showed him from the waist up to spare audiences the outrage of his gyrations. October saw the premiere of Leave It To Beaver. It joined similar TV fare legitimizing values that so many of the white, urban, middle class had internalized and assumed to be natural and perennial. They could be excused for not noticing so many of their children reading Kerouac, listening to Elvis, and that not everyone thought like Ward Cleaver or them.

Race. For decades, Jim Crow’s unwritten rules separated Black and White in American and Canadian cities and towns. In January 1957, Martin Luther King became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It drew legitimacy from the Bible, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and its non-violent tactics from Mahatma Ghandi. In September, inspired by Dr. King’s message, nine African American children attempted to enter Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. They were stopped by a screaming white mob. President Eisenhower sent federal troops. Every morning, armed paratroopers escorted the kids to class. Eisenhower introduced the first federal civil rights legislation in 82 years.

The Year of Whispered Warnings.

One of Little Rock Nine wading through racists to go to school.

While slavery is America’s original sin, Canada’s is her treatment of aboriginal people. In 1957, the government and churches continued to ignore the protests of aboriginal parents by dispatching police and priests to steal their children. Native kids were forced into Residential Schools where many were beaten, sexually abused, and subjected to quasi-scientific experiments while taught to reject their heritage and themselves. Six thousand children would eventually die at the schools.

In June 1957, Canadians elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He championed civil rights and cultural diversity within a unified Canada. He would enact legislation granting Native adults the right to vote and then a Bill of Rights declaring all citizens equal under the law.

Gender. Girls were taught in school and indoctrinated through movies, television, and advertising that their only responsible option and reasonable ambition was to marry and raise children. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy participated in a debate at Hart House, the University of Toronto’s academic and cultural hub. He was escorted past twenty young women protesting that only men were allowed in Hart House. When asked his opinion, Kennedy said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

However, also in 1957, Betty Friedan was asked to undertake a survey among her Smith College classmates who were preparing for their 15th reunion. She found complaints of having a family but not happiness and household gadgets but not fulfillment. Friedan identified the problem without a name and was inspired to dig deeper. Her research became The Feminine Mystique. The book would unleash the second and most powerful wave of the women’s movement.

In June 1957, Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough to his cabinet. She was first woman to enjoy such a position.

Cold War. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Every orbital beep was a braggart’s boast; Soviet scientists had bested Americans who, for two years, had been working on their own satellite. Sputnik threatened that nuclear weapons could be delivered not just by bombers that could be shot down but also by rockets against which there was no defense.

Air raid siren tests pierced quiet afternoons. Emergency network drills interrupting television shows. People were taught to fear reds under their beds and over their heads. From now on, wars would have us all on the front line.

Some years are portentous for what occurred and others for the warnings they whispered. The Times Square New Year’s Eve glitches were metaphors for 1957’s cautioning us that change was coming and a great deal that had been perceived as right or permanent were neither. In many ways, we continue to rewrite the rules and retest the assumptions that 1957 told us no longer applied.

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Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Guild guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing, and looking a lot like my cousin’s Guild, a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

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