You know you have reached a generational milestone when you have that conversation with your children about why popular music today is vacuous and insipid. (I’m exaggerating, of course. Only 90% of popular music today is vacuous and insipid. But then 90% of popular music has always been vacuous and insipid.)
In this particular conversation, I was trying to explain to my two teenage children about the significance of expectation. My daughter had complained that classical music all sounded the same to her, and I suggested that that was because she didn’t know what to expect. A lot of classical pieces follow a general format, so the listener can recognize where the composer is going. The sonata form, for example, typically introduces a pair of themes, plays them all over again to make sure the audience learns them, then offers a series of variations on those themes – often elaborating on them, passing them from one instrument to another, etc. – before wrapping everything up in a relatively brief conclusion. If you don’t know the format, you won’t be able to follow along, and you won’t be able to tell if the composer is doing a good job.
My daughter pointed out that pop music also follows a general format. I agreed, but said that there is a difference between predictability and expectation. A lot of pop music follows a pattern slavishly. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. Dance-dance-dance-sex. Anything that predictable becomes tedious.
The best music has always been the stuff that both fulfills listeners’ expectations and gives them something they didn’t expect. That’s why The Beatles were so popular. Or Beethoven. Imagine being in the audience the first time Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was played. It started off with a theme, as the audience was expecting; but instead of being the kind of pretty melody they were used to, this was like an explosion of just four notes: DA DA DA DUM! The audience must have been thrown back in their seats.
Then, when he got around to playing with that theme, as the audience expected he would, Beethoven did something else totally new. Instead of making the theme more elaborate, he started simplifying. He cut it down to three notes, then two notes, then just one note, repeating – DA! DA! DA! – while somehow still maintaining the tension and interest. Familiar, yet never seen before. And even at the end of the movement, when the audience was expecting that he’ll just wrap things up nicely by repeating the original themes once more and then coming to a close, Beethoven surprised them again. He had the orchestra play those chords that everyone recognizes as the signal that the piece is about to end – you know the ones, the sounds that just feel like the end of the piece – but it was a fake-out. Just as the audience was expecting the final chord, the instruments dove back into the music for another minute or two. Then Beethoven did it again, and again – three or four times before he finally brought the movement to a close.
That’s what the best music, or any kind of art, does – it satisfies us by giving us what we expect, but also delights us by giving us something worthwhile, thought-provoking, or meaningful that we did not expect.
Even as I was explaining this to my kids, I was thinking: And the same holds true in our work, as well. Fulfilling the expectations of those we work for – our bosses, our clients, our colleagues – is essential and foundational. If we can’t meet the expectations of the job, we are not going to succeed in it. Conversely, exceeding those expectations – providing a solution faster than expected, or producing a greater volume of product than expected, or putting in more time than required – can be one route to success, because it is a way of making sure that the people who matter get plenty of what they were expecting to get.
But the most successful people are those who turn work into a work of art – who not only do what is expected of them, but who also find ways to add something that no one expected. Not just more of what people think they want, but something new that is also worthwhile, thought-provoking, or meaningful. These are the innovators who find answers when other people don’t even recognize the questions. These are the visionaries who recognize and pursue novel opportunities. These are the entrepreneurs who devise new products or new ways of doing business.
Many of them end up as leaders, but anyone, at any level in their own hierarchy, can be a work artist. Just keep in mind what Beethoven, Cezanne, and Twain knew: give people what they expect, but do not settle for that alone. Consider the unexpected. After all, the thing that makes something a surprise – the fact that no one has seen it before – is also sometimes the same thing that makes it a solution. Figuring out that unexpected extra will not only make you valuable to others; it will also make work more enjoyable and satisfying for you.