I still remember my first day in Berlin like it were yesterday.
When I flew in, I looked over the tops of a neat little toy collection, with orderly houses in manicured streets. On landing, I remember the bus ride into the city alongside the river Spree. I remember the smell of baked goodies wafting through the subway. I remember visiting the Berlin Museum of Natural History where I saw my first brontosaurus skeleton. I remember staring in wonder as the head of this magnificent beast towered five stories higher than my own.
And yet, I have lived for more than 3 years in Berlin now, and each of those experiences have turned mundane. In fact, I remember my first ride in Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway) better than my ride from last month.
The first time we experience something leaves a lasting impression in our mind. We remember our first visit to the beach, the first time swim in the deep end, the first time we drove a car, our first taste of Vietnamese food, the first time we played table tennis and our first time in a foreign country. We remember the first time much better than our repeat encounters. Repetition limits the extent to which we engage with an experience and undermines the impression it leaves behind. But why does this happen?
Imagine you are listening to Beethoven’s Für Elise for the first time. You have no memory of this classical piece and it is free to etch one on your mind like a footprint on fresh sand. Now let us say you listen to this tune again and again. Whenever it plays, you find yourself humming along. When a tune becomes too familiar, we stop listening to it as it is played, and instead listen to its impression in our mind. At some point, you have heard it too often and it becomes boring.
Apart from boredom, repetition robs from experience through comparison. The first time we eat sushi, we don’t have a benchmark. We are likely to taste sushi with a fresh perspective. The second time we eat sushi, we automatically compare it to the first time we have eaten it – ‘This sushi is good, but not as good as the one I ate at the Japanese food festival.’ Familiarity is a double-edged sword. Even as it makes us crave for experiences we have already had, like playing a familiar song or eating a familiar dish, it exacts its price from this experience through boredom and repetition.
Yet, there is a way for us to mitigate this bare-faced robbery. Savants across fields are able to take familiar knowledge and present it to us with a new perspective. People were familiar with gravity before Isaac Newton came along, but he packaged it as a universal law that applies just as much to planetary motion as it does to our falling jaw bones when we think of its cosmic implications. Two hundred and fifty years later, Albert Einstein came along and did the same thing all over again.
As the saying goes, genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no one else has thought. Scientists and artists are in touch with their beginner’s mind. Despite their intricate familiarity with fundamental concepts, they are able to examine them as though they were seeing it for the first time. Boredom is a subjective feeling. The attitude you bring to a familiar experience separates boredom from curiosity and wonder.
Here’s a thought experiment. The next time a bird perches on your balcony or an old friend talks about their favourite topic, can you lean into those experiences as if they were happening for the first time? Through the power of your intention, can you free those experiences from the four horsemen of conditioning – familiarity, repetition, boredom and comparison?
We hear only too often to live each day as though it were our last. Instead, what if we lived each day as though it were our first?