Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → Mystery : Are people asking themselves questions about you?

Questions need answers.

Don’t underestimate the power of curiosity. Once you get people to start asking questions, they need to know the answers.

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert did an experiment:

  1. he handed out a short quiz on common-life topics
  2. before taking the quiz, everyone was asked whether they would prefer a candy bar at the end, or to know the answers
  3. everyone chose to receive the candy bar
  4. then they took the quiz
  5. after the quiz was done, they were given the choice again: candy bar, or know the answers?
  6. everyone chose to know the answers, instead (giving up the free candy bar)

Conclusion of the experiment : once people have asked themselves a question, they can’t stand not-knowing the answer.

Two brilliant Brian Eno quotes:

The most important thing in a piece of music is to seduce people to the point where they start searching.

Produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard.

What was the first music you heard? Do you remember the mystery?

My first album, when I was 10 years old, was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”. The crazy psychedelic sounds of “Only a Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much”. The weird lyrics of “Hey Bulldog”. So freaky. I listened to it over and over before getting The White Album, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s.

Late-period Beatles were quite a lot of mystery for a 10-year old. (Imagine at 10, trying to understand the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus”.) After that I got into Led Zeppelin, a bunch of Birmingham heavy metal, (Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden), and plenty of others that were such a big dark mystery to a kid from Hinsdale, Illinois.

I still remember that as one of the most fascinating times in my life. I was completely obsessed with this mysterious music, spending hours a day, for years, wanting more, trying to figure it all out.

Didn’t you?

Keith Richards’ technique for being less obvious

When I worked at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, Keith Richards, talking about songwriting, said:

“Lyrics are best when they’re mysterious - like listening in to someone else’s phone conversation when the telephone wires have crossed. You don’t know the history or context. You don’t understand the references. So it draws you in even deeper, trying to understand.

If you’re too obvious and explain everything in your lyrics, you don’t get that mystery. So what I do is this:

Write out everything I’m thinking, everything I want to say, but then cross out every other line, and write the song using only what’s left, even though it doesn’t make total sense.”

Reddit shows how to make intriguing titles is a site where people share links to things they find interesting. Everyone votes-up the submissions they find most interesting, and the top-voted ones rise to the top of the chart each day.

So, since Reddit is proof of what thousands of people find intriguing, you can use it to find inspiration for song titles or subjects. Usually the title of the link is most of what makes it irresistably clickable. Lists like “The 7 Most Terrifying Disney Movie Deaths” - or oddities like “Bit by shark and hit by car, athlete perseveres”.

Of course this is taken to extremes by TV news channels, when they give the early-evening teaser ad that says, “Could something in your house right now be killing you as we speak? Find out later tonight on Channel 9 News!”

Are you making mystery?

IMAGE: Within the realm of a dying sun from