Happy birthday, Django!: A Study in Resilience and Innovation

Happy birthday, Django!: A Study in Resilience and Innovation

January 23 marked the 108th birthday of the guitar legend Django Reinhardt, who passed away in 1953 at age 43. Considered a towering figure of 20th century music and a pioneering instrumentalist, Reinhardt’s influence can still be heard in the playing of contemporary guitarists from practically every genre. He was by all accounts the world’s first true guitar hero. I want to share a fascinating aspect of Reinhardt’s life and musicianship that we can all learn from whether we’re musically inclined or not.

Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani encampments close to Paris (the Romani are commonly referred to as Gypsies, although that term is widely considered pejorative). When Reinhardt was a young man and developing guitarist, a candle tipped over inside the wooden caravan he and his wife lived in. The structure was engulfed within seconds. Although the two were able to reach safety, Reinhardt emerged badly burned. He received severe injuries, including to several fingers of his left hand.

“Scar tissue forced his third and fourth fingers into a permanent hook, making them useless except to finger the upper notes of some chords on the E and B strings,” writes David McCarty of Flatpicking Guitar magazine. “For a year and a half, he fought every day to stretch burned tissues, rebuild calluses and restore muscle memory to his hand and recuperate from his other injuries.” Although his fingers were permanently damaged, Reinhardt adopted a novel way of playing using only his thumb and two good fingers. It was a style that would come to define him.

Watch Django do his thing here:

Reinhardt’s story contains at least two powerful lessons. The first is that no matter what challenges we may face, the will and determination to rise above them cannot be overestimated. The second lesson is that embracing limitations can actually lead to innovation. As McCarty writes:

“Some writers have argued that Django’s physical handicap actually made him a better guitarist than had he the use of all four fingers on his fretting hand….Unable to play the linear, scale-driven lines that fall all too easily under the fingers of most guitarists, Django’s limited mobility forced him to view the fingerboard more vertically than horizontally. Blessed with exceptionally large hands and long fingers…he had the strength and stretch to make wide intervals with just his first two fingers. He invented the use of octave runs as a soloing device on guitar, another example of taking his two-fingered limitation and making it a musical asset.”

This idea of accepting and leveraging, rather than bemoaning, limitations is a key principle of innovation. Each of us has limitations on our ability to accomplish our work. Not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough personnel. Many years ago, I witnessed a senior leader at one of my clients tell new members of her staff, “You’ll face the impossible here, and you’ll need to figure out a way to do it.” Limitations are a part of life. They’re inevitable and often unavoidable.

That’s why Reinhardt’s example is so powerful. In the face of significant limitations, he developed a totally new way of playing rather than give up the instrument he loved. In so doing, he became not just a great guitarist but one of the greatest of all time. It’s an important lesson for artists and businesses alike, especially in this day of shrinking budgets, reduced headcount, and relentless demands on our time.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how to re-frame limitations to unleash creativity. In the meantime, here’s a question to consider: What limitations (time, money, resources, etc.) can you and/or your team leverage to achieve innovative breakthroughs?