I love and hate to talk about taste. What is, exactly, to have taste? Most say taste is just a set of preferences. And they also argue that taste isn’t open for debate. Fruitful debate, that is.
I could not disagree more. In my not-so-humble opinion, to have taste is to have the ability to both: identify the characteristics of something and, evaluate how well they perform a certain set of goals.
This effort hasn’t to be deliberate nor conscious. In fact, I think most people’s taste is mainly emotional (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink interpretation of gut feeling). It’s hard to inspect something so intractable as emotions, let alone discuss. Sometimes, there aren’t even enough nouns in our languages to describe them. However, as always, something being difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Quite on the contrary: solving difficult problems typically wields good rewards.
My reasoning for this particular definition comes from, as a software engineer, repeatedly comparing solutions to a problem at different times of my life. Some of those times, specially when there has been some time since I solved it, my evaluation of what is the solution changes. Why? Why do I, when faced with the same context (and the problem is part of the context here), change parameters? Or, by the same reasoning, dig my commitment to a certain solution even deeper? I have found that — and this is purely empirical with no data whatsoever to back it up — I become aware of more and more facets of the problem. Every time I try something out, I have to bear the pains that solution inflicts and some of these pains obviates something I haven’t before contemplated. And, in further evaluations, I will carry this fresh scar that these fresh pains have ripped on me . If I was to solve only one problem over and over again, I think my axis of evaluation wouldn’t grow much. However, lessons learnt doing one thing spill to everything else you do (assuming you’re sufficiently smart to correlate stuff). As so, every time I solve a problem, even if it’s a repeated one, I get a new opportunity to test how well my solution evaluation system has worked. How my scars have prevented me from getting any more scars.
The very same reasoning for this particular definition also comes from, as a whisky drinker, repeatedly drinking the same whisky at different times of my life. I have tasted other whiskies in the mean time and, surely enough, it’s easier to recognize some slight figment of taste. Easy enough that I can now direct the effort of tasting to other, less explored nuances. Repeated and diverse tastings of whisky teach me how to better savor it because I get more at ease with identifying the various elements in its taste. It’s pretty much the same train of thought. The difference is that you get drunk, provided enough whisky.
To avoid or pursue something, you have to recognize it. It might not be a conscious recognition at first, though. Bringing this recognition from unconscious to consciousness make you able to talk about it. This transition is the hardest part in developing taste. It’s identifying the characteristics of something, as I said before.
So, we nailed the first part. The second part, evaluating how well something performs a certain set of goals, is somewhat easier. The hard part is deciding what’s the correct set of goals and their relative importance. It’s when our preferences, or beliefs, meddle in.
For example, I, when developing software, value
- effectiveness (accounting getting finished in time);
There are those who disagree with me. Some wouldn’t consider maintainability (or have it further down the list). And, thus, this influences their work. Knowing the right order is very debatable. People can make money/products either way. They might argue that being successful is the right gauge. However, even if we pin down this definition of success (money, downloads, clicks, whatever), we have so many other non reproducible factors in the process that we’re always comparing apples and trucks.
Let’s try something simpler, less debatable. Food. One’s preferences on food are not up to debate. They’re intrinsically always successful. I like spicy, you don’t. That’s ok. However, there’s also lots of intersections: most people like sweets. Theoretically, If we identify all the flavors and nuances of taste in some delicious dish and we also know what some person’s preferences are, we can pre-determine how good they’ll think that dish really is for them. We can identify success a priori, as per their definition of success.
The lack of fruitful debate in taste lies solely on the preferences or beliefs. Everything else is, surely, very debatable.
Inspired by Day 30: Carving A Lens.
: Some call this experience. But don’t get hung up on this word, as it’s also too vague to be discussed. Focus on the scars.