I love talking about failure, or more specifically, how thinking differently about failure and mistakes often lead us down unexpectedly fruitful paths. Miles Davis once quipped: “Do not fear mistakes; there are none.” That’s mostly true when playing jazz, a type of music that celebrates spontaneous self-expression — warts and all — rather than perfection. Of course, there are times when failure really isn’t an option (think operating rooms and 747 cockpits). But when it comes to creativity and innovation, John Wooden’s famous quote rings true: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
As a professional musician, I know a few things about mistakes. At a recent performance in Atlantic City, for example, I was all set to play the violin solo at the end of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who on my soprano saxophone — something I’ve done hundreds of times over the years. But on this occasion, after a good start, I somehow lost my way. I began to improvise until I could regain my footing; I’m pretty sure the crowd didn’t notice, and I took the whole episode in stride. I knew instinctively that I had to keep playing — even if it meant just making stuff up until I could recover. I trusted myself to eventually find the right notes and re-enter the solo properly.
One of the best examples of how to turn a fail into a win was sent to me by a colleague. Watch as the young musician not only doesn’t panic, but proceeds to turn what could have been disastrous into something unforgettable:
Now that’s grace under pressure personified. Here’s another example. Observe how all 3 musicians respond when guitarist Kazumi Watanabe’s instrument falls at 2:55:
There’s no finger-pointing. Nobody is belittled or humiliated. Nobody shakes their head in disgust or grimaces or rolls his eyes. It’s just something that happened. And these pros handle it with total confidence. The music never stops.
The next time you or someone on your team makes an honest mistake or “fails” in the pursuit of innovation, how will you respond?