Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
When I was a young boy, I lived with my parents and older brother in a one-bedroom house at the end of a long dirt road in the middle of the forest. Couple this isolation with the facts that we didn’t own a TV and our car wasn’t roadworthy enough to go very far, and it would be correct to conclude that I lived a rather cloistered childhood. By the time I was six, I doubt that I had ventured more than three miles from our home.
I remember the day when all of this changed. Our neighbor, Wilson Cowslip, asked my mother if it would be okay to take me to the county fair with his son Billy. Mom smiled broadly and told him, “Sure, it should be fun.” I had no idea what a county fair was, but since mom smiled so broadly at the mere mention of the place, I jumped at the chance.
Later that day, as we drew near the fair, we happened upon a snack stand where I realized that, for the very first time, I was about to step upon sacred ground. There stood a shed that contained foods and confections I had never dared to imagine. I immediately settled on a hank of cotton candy and after sampling it, couldn’t believe that I had never before tasted such a wonderful invention. Where had they been hiding this delectable treat? Next came my very first candy apple. It was so beautiful I only licked at it for fear that I would destroy its luminous shine. And then came a fat, juicy bratwurst. Holy cow! Why had I been eating hotdogs all my life when bratwurst existed?
From there, the three of us walked to the midway where I learned that you could win terrific prizes by completing various feats of hand-eye coordination. After throwing baseballs at bottles so long and so poorly that the worker operating the concession took pity on me, I won a celluloid stuffed monkey that I loved so much I wouldn’t let go of it for the next two days.
Then came the real animals. The first structure we entered housed pedigreed rabbits, guinea pigs, and pigeons. Each animal was more bizarre and beautiful than the previous. Huge fuzzy ears, radiant tail feathers, fur so thick it covered the animal’s eyes—could there be anything more adorable? Some of the pigeons, I learned, if released into the air, would do summersaults. Imagine—acrobatic birds!
Next came the show animals. There was a bull so large you could have fit our entire house on its back. Nearby were chickens so colorful that they looked like they had escaped from a Disney movie. At one point, I came across a steer whose horns were so sharp and long, I stood frozen on the spot. I couldn’t move. Where had this all been before I visited the fair? Certainly nowhere near our house on 25th Street.
When I finally arrived home that evening, I nearly dislocated my arms, so wild were my gesticulations as I described to my mom and dad the wonders I had seen for the very first time. That day, I must have experienced over a hundred “first times.”
But the wonder soon faded. With time and repeated exposure, the new became the recent until the recent eventually wilted into the old. Consequently, twenty years later when the local county fair was promoted on TV, I wasn’t the least bit interested—that is, until my boys begged me to take them. I reluctantly agreed.
And then something marvelous transpired. When the three of us arrived at the fair, the tired old place was made new to me through the eyes of my boys. It was their first time. Even though they had lived a far more diverse life than I had as a boy, they were still excited by the sounds, smells, and sites of the fair.
My sons reveled as they stood in the shadow of the enormous animals. And so did I. They purchased massive turkey drumsticks and walked around chewing on them like pirates, shouting “Arrrg!” And so did I. Then came the coup de grâce. Each of us bought a mystery box at the rock-house display, poured out the sand, and discovered our very own thunder egg—complete with accompanying quartz crystals. Now my sons weren’t merely pirates, they were treasure-toting pirates! And so was I.
Later that day, as I sat at home basking in the glow of a successful outing, I slowly became aware of something I had experienced before, but now I had a name for it. While it was true that I would never have the same first-time experience I’d had years earlier by simply returning to the fair (or something equally grand)—if my children accompanied me and experienced the event for their first time, I could enjoy a second first time through their eyes.
We do such things all the time. We take a friend to a play we’ve already seen, not simply to view the play again, but to watch our friend and borrow a bit of their first-time reaction. When we do, we enjoy a second first time.
It took another twenty years for researchers to fully understand this particular phenomenon. As it turns out, human brains are filled with what are now known as mirror neurons. When others are experiencing an emotional event, our mirror neurons are set into action. As these information-transmitting cells fire, we don’t merely understand what is happening to the other person or feel sympathetic toward him or her—it’s as if the experience is actually happening to us. Mirror neurons are the font of all vicarious experiences. Mirror neurons give us a second first time.
I know this sounds strange, but I can be a bit purposeful when it comes to exploiting my own mirror neurons. Aware of the power of these tiny cells, I look for chances to hitchhike off the emotions of the uninitiated. At the age of 67, I volunteer my time by teaching an MBA class where newcomers help remind me of why I love the field. I serve as a mentor at work by meeting once a week with a young employee and discussing the history of our books and products. Oh yes, and with regards to my grandchildren, I can’t wait to take them to new sights and experiences where I can enjoy a third first time.
As a parting comment, I’ll concede that not all first-time experiences fade and can only be revived by a second first time. We have titanium-like experiences that don’t wear, rust, or weaken with use. In fact, they can be experienced over and over and never lose their luster.
I was reminded of this fact yesterday when my daughter shared the following experience. As she watched her five-year-old son Tommy play with action figures, complete with cute sound effects, she turned to him and said, “I love you Tommy.” He looked up at her, smiled, and responded, “I know mommy.” Then, after thinking about it for a moment he looked up again and said, “But you can keep telling me.”
Some things just never get old.