DUNBAR’S NUMBER, AND WHY YOU SHOULD STOP BEING A FANBOY

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This one is for any of you who love wasting your time debating who the “best xyz guitarist” is (or any other similar ranking thing).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

One of the coolest things I’ve ever come across in social psychology is the model of Dunbar’s Number – – its a theoretical maximum number of social hierarchical relationships people can maintain and track over time.
In simpler terms, a maximum number of people we can give a fuck about in day-to-day life.

This ties naturally into social hierarchy because we always tend to pay attention to people who’re higher up in the food chain than we are.

So, as an example, let’s assume there’re thousands of amazing alto sax players in the world. That’s a LOT of people to keep track of, so why not shrink that number down to a few, maybe an arbitrary top 10 list? That’d make it easier for us, in terms of cognitive load. It’s completely incorrect from a “facts” point-of-view, but we don’t care about facts anyway, so why the hell not.

So that’s what we compulsively do ALL THE TIME – – we love over-simplifying metrics to contract the number of “icons” we need to keep track of to a manageable number.

A jazz aficionado may say “oh, Charlie Parker was the best alto player” not because that’s an objective conclusion – – – but because its too much cognitive load to track all the other amazing musicians of similar calibre, so we default to the one who’s the most famous/has the most social proof.

Its something to keep in mind, especially if you’re learning music – – not to fall into “fanboy” thinking, where you position someone at the top of an imaginary hierarchy – – usually based on limited data, and mostly going by social proof (ie what other people are saying is good). It leads to everyday stupidity like saying “oh Charlie Parker was the best alto sax player ever” without ever transcribing Parker, spending a lot of time and energy on online social media debates defending why “Allan Holdsworth was the best fusion guitarist ever” without even knowing what the hell Holdsworth was playing.
(Note that all of these are things I’ve personally done more often than I’d care to admit, so no-one is really “above it” )

It takes a while to internalise this one. So, as you’re reading this, I want you to refrain from any knee-jerk “thats so true” or “thats total BS” reactions. Just let it sink in, and over time you’ll begin to become aware of the fact that one of the best ways to Learn Jazz Faster is when you’re able to Stop having autopilot responses – – and Start to make a mental shift away from “fanboy/icon” thinking – – where you’re basically like a chimp trying to figure out the status hierarchy in your 150 person tribe – – to a “modelling” mentality – – when you hear something you like, try to model it, try to break it down to parts you can assimilate and just focus on learning the “how to” instead of getting caught up in idol worship.

Because the more you’re able to realize that the musicians you admire were all ordinary people, it allows you to actually figure out what they did, specifically, that led to them getting the results you want. It’s a much better space to come from than just admiring them from a distance and using the same, overused platitudes to disguise the fact that you haven’t actually spent time “modelling” them, transcribing them, reverse engineering their talent.

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