August 25

Sequels and Sophomores

We’ve all been there.

We’ve read a new book or listened to a new album and absolutely fell in love. We re-read and re-listen and soak in the magic. Then, to our utter delight, we discover that the book is going to have a sequel! Or the artist is already working on a sophomore album!

We wait months. Sometimes even years.

Finally, release day arrives. We head straight to our local book store or our iTunes account. We dive in. We press play on the shiny new album. We crack the spine on the hot-off-the-press book.

But then…

All too often it seems those sequels and sophomore albums fall flat. The songs sound nothing like the ones we listened to so often we know every word by heart. The book feels like it was written by a different author. The magic somehow disappears.

Why does that happen? I have two theories.

Theory #1: The album or book actually isn’t as good as the first.

Think about it. Most authors and artists spend years working on their first project. They pour sweat, blood, and tears into the pages or the notes, struggling to get that literary agent, that record deal, that dream publisher.

But then all of a sudden there’s a two book deal, and the manuscript for the sequel (of which not a word has been written) needs to be in the editor’s hands within a matter of months. Gone are the long hours spent agonizing over each paragraph to make sure it shines. Just get it done, and get it done fast.

Or in the music world, the debut album is sitting at number one! Gotta strike while the iron is hot. This well-renowned writer and producer can make it happen fast. Oh, the sophomore doesn’t sound anything like the debut? That’s okay. People will buy it anyway.

Theory #2: The book or album is great! The let-down is due to the listener’s or reader’s perspective. This can happen in two ways.

The first involves a psychology-related cognitive distortion called filtering, in which a person magnifies positive details while filtering out the negatives, or vice versa. Remember those two years we spent waiting? I have a feeling some filtering happened, turning a great work of art into a great work of art that can never be matched because we’ve built it up so much.

For the second way, I have to tell you a little about my former life as a teacher. Here in the northern of the Carolinas, my students took a standardized test at the end of each year. The students only cared about if they passed – if they got to move on to the next grade or not.

We teachers, however, cared much most about a number that showed how much growth each student made from the year before. When a student made a full year of growth, that meant we did our job. Making more than a year of growth meant we rocked and got a pat on the back from our principal. Making less than a year of growth or even negative growth? Bad news. Even though the student spent a year in our classroom, they didn’t get a year’s worth of knowledge. Ouch.

Do you know which group of students almost always failed to show the appropriate amount of growth?

Not the struggling students. Given the right support, those students were like sponges, soaking in knowledge, often growing almost two years or more.

Not the average students. Predictably, those students grew right about as much as we expected them to.

It was the group you’d least expect – the academically gifted students, the naturally intelligent kids who showed little to no growth.

Often I’d look at those students and wonder what I could have done differently. What they could have done differently. But it’s not that they were lazy. It’s not that they didn’t receive enrichment and challenges in the classroom. It’s just that when students are already at the 95th or the 97th or the 99th percentile, where else can they go?

If any of my other students scored in those percentiles, I’d be thrilled! Ecstatic!

Which makes me think that if any other author wrote that sequel, I might think it was brilliant! Fantastic! If any other artist released those songs, I might love them! Play them on repeat for hours on end! But because the bar was set unreasonably high, they fell short.

The take away:

Writers and musicians – don’t think no one will notice if the second isn’t as good as the first. We notice. Take your time and do it right. We’ll love you for it.

Book and music fans – Give those “seconds” a chance! Is that book or album really not as good as the first? Or is that just how it seems to you? Remember why you loved that “first” and search out those details in the second. They’ll be there, even if they look or sound different, even if you have to lower your unrealistic expectations to find them.

The challenge:

There are definitely sophomore albums and sequels that are fabulous – as good as or even better than the original. What are your favorites? Share them in the comments!

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