If I had to rank my hobbies in order of time spent on them, “listening to music” would most likely be at the top, only potentially superseded by my time spent coding (especially if you count my work hours). It has been a passion of mine since middle school, but in the fast-paced, results-driven world of Silicon Valley, it is a hobby that often feels out of place.
It’s not that people here don’t listen to music; on the contrary, almost everyone I know listens to music passively throughout the day. Rather, it’s that there seems to be little time to kick back, put your feet up, and really enjoy a hobby as passive as actively listening to music.
Most people I know in the Valley recommend exercising, taking classes, or something similarly beneficial to your social life or professional career as a hobby. It is, honestly, kind of exhausting. The mentality seems to amount to “you can listen to music, just be sure you are doing something else at the same time”.
However, in spite of all the pressure to be busy and productive, I find making time to satiate my inner music junkie has a special place in the context of the Valley.
You got a brain to think about today, you got eyes to choose the way, you got your body to run off the rails, but you’re always afraid to fail. - March of the Robots by SiM
One of the primary reasons I enjoy continually exploring the various realms of music is that it forces my day-to-day life into a dimension other than the professional. Listening to music, as opposed to podcasts or TED talks, is totally orthogonal to any career aspirations I have, and I personally think this is a good thing.
It would be quite easy for me to only live in my professional life; after all, I love what I do. But, when I take some time to consider that “the recent Showbread album is a perfect meta-album” or that “heavy hardcore is going to be huge soon”, it is like breathing in fresh air. It’s an escape from the staleness of professionalism and the logic of technology.
I find that a hallmark of any good hobby is its ability to distract you from the everyday. For myself, and others that I know love music, listening to music is not just about trying to be cultured (though there are those that prize that aspect), it is about introspection and enjoying the artistry of sound. While that may seem a bit cheesy, I believe it resonates with a lot of people and is why technologies such as MP3 players and streaming music services have seen so much success in recent years.
There are plenty of articles to suggest that varied experiences can lead to improved creative output in your life, which Silicon Valley is renowned for and most people would like to have. The problem, however, is that we like to think of “experiences” as major events, such as traveling abroad or climbing a literal mountain.
However, those types of experiences are infrequent at best and non-existent at worst. Instead, I find focusing on new experiences that are “small” in scope to be much more rewarding.
In music, these minor events, such as finding a new album you love or a new genre to explore, help me keep the day-to-day of my life varied in subtle ways, and that, in turn, helps keep my mind sharp. And so I’ve found actively engaging in music appreciation is an easy way to engage new experiences.
Don’t believe me? Try changing up the music you listen to at work and see how it affects the way you approach problems. Maybe it won’t do anything for you, but for many I think it’ll be a refreshing change of pace that could improve your creative output.
Inspiration and Aspirations
The corollary to creativity, usually mentioned in the same breath, is “inspiration”. Inspiration often feels like this magical entity that, when it touches you, automatically makes you more creative. I dislike this thought process since it reduces inspiration into this ephemeral gift that you are either blessed with receiving or not.
Instead of inspiration being something that “strikes you”, I prefer to think of inspiration as anything that gives you an “aspiration”. Again, I apologize if that sounds cheesy, but thinking in this regard allows inspiration to come from many different areas and influence other dimensions of your life. And, it even allows for you to be repeatedly inspired by a single thing.
Think about that for a moment. Any true inspiration you’ve felt is probably because it is driving you to want something you view as better or greater than current reality.
I say all this to bring up the deciding factor for the music that I continue to listen to over and over again for year after year. Whether it is pulling your life back together or helping the needy while being less selfish, music that evokes an aspiration to something greater is one of my greatest driving forces for inspiration.
As a brief aside, it’s sad to me that many folks don’t know or don’t pay attention to the lyrical content of the music they listen to. It’s also funny that one of the most frequent questions I get about death metal/deathcore/hardcore/etc. is “can you even understand what they’re saying?”, while a large portion of how I decide what music I continue to listen to is based on the lyrical content.
Aside from aspiring to greater things, I find music encourages me to challenge my perceptions about the world on a regular basis. This ranges from religious topics (universalism?) to politics (NSA boundaries?) and even foundations for entire worldviews (nihilism?).
There is also certainly plenty of music that simply reinforces what I already believe, but the more I explore music the more opinions and viewpoints I am exposed to. Some are off-putting enough that I refuse to listen to that music, but others bring to light interesting perspectives that then become enfolded into my own personal perception.
The main point here is that if the music you listen to doesn’t cause you to, at least occasionally, think about deeper things, you should probably listen to some better music.
Escaping Without Leaving
Lastly, we love to talk about work-life balance in the tech industry. But, it is no secret that the tech world (and Silicon Valley in particular) has burnout issues.
From my experience one of the chief reasons for this burnout is that it is so difficult to escape the grasp of technology without physically escaping your routine. We take fancy vacations and throw extravagant parties, but these are temporary reprieves.
I find donning a decent pair of headphones and turning the volume up just enough to ignore distractions can be an excellent way to disconnect. Let yourself explore the emotions of music instead of the intricacies of your latest work project.
Capture Your Imagination
I’ve written a lot of words in this post, but it all basically boils down to one thing: find a hobby that captures your imagination. For some of us that means cooking, for other that means constructing models, and for others that means participating in role-playing games. As for me, I’m going to keep jamming new music.
Sampling of artists listened to while writing this post: Silent Planet, I See Stars, Viva Belgrado, The Plot In You, Slice The Cake, Enter Shikari, Strawberry Girls, Polyphia, all of the linked artists, and more.