Creative Failure

To experience a room completely glowing with creativity, skip over the CEO’s office and the boardroom at the illustrious software company– walk into a classroom where children are attending their first day of school.  The remarkable learning capacity of children has been demonstrated in countless studies, and the sheer amount of information one learns in merely a few years of life perhaps triumphs that during years of postgraduate study.  Ultimately, children maintain one trait that slowly disappears with time: the ability to question anything and everything.

We live in a world steeped with tradition.  As a music student, I see this world of tradition shown through music history.  Characteristics of music in Ancient Greece have transpired all the way up to today.  And in the scope of musical composition, new ideas have often been shunned, for the common populace (and even some intellectuals) saw creativity as nothing more than disrespect for the greatness of the past.  J.S. Bach, possibly the cornerstone of Western musical ideal before Beethoven, was criticized for writing “too intellectually,” and thus lived a quiet life teaching keyboard and writing for the church; it wasn’t until some 125 years later that the young Felix Mendelssohn would revive Bach, and show the world that creativity and pushing boundaries was something to which could be aspired.

Perhaps the argument could be made that we begin early in our lives in a totally freed state of mind.  External pressures come out of necessity to survive, NOT out of necessity to be liked or achieve greatness among others.  Our society has come to have a very narrow definition of talent, and we teach our youth this through relentless testing and scoring in schools; if a young student is “below average,” they are thrown in a class with others who scored similarly.  In their minds, unknowing how to react, they develop a definition of themselves that is ultimately “less” than someone else.  Suddenly, all of these students formulate ideas of “successful” and “unsuccessful.”  Perfection becomes the standard.  And making mistakes is wrong.

But if the end result is to gain proficiency in a skill, what’s so wrong about pointing out error?  It starts with how the brain works: it needs to fail to learn.  Tiny nerve tissue, called myelin, is built in the brain as we learn new things.  With each repetition of a task, a layer of myelin is built, and we slowly gain competency doing a specific thing.  However, if we choose to acknowledge failure more than correctness, we end up building a knowledge of how to work incorrectly.  Just imagine if you told a four-year-old to NOT drop a glass because it would shatter.  What do you think will be the result?  Most likely, the child is going to imagine what would happen if the glass is dropped, and they will end up doing exactly that.  Award-winning author Daniel Coyle explains the science of myelin as applied to music, athletics, and teaching in his book, “The Talent Code.”

Kennesaw State University caught my attention as a school because of a certain teacher who is now a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, possibly one of the most artistically daring musical institutions in the world today.  I had the privilege of studying with L.A. Philharmonic Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten for one year, and my entire outlook on learning was changed over the course of that year.  Mr. Hooten once told me that there has to be part of you that likes to fail, because it is only through failure that one can grow.  From my academic studies to the hours of practice on my instrument, I began to remember correct repetitions of individualized skills, but I would spend an equal amount of time thinking about how failure was caused.

One of my most memorable failures was during a competition in 2011.  I was to perform a solo piece at this national event, and the room was filled with judges, teachers, and performers who would stare at each player as they presented their piece.  Despite my physically apparent nervousness, I began performing at a level that was perhaps my best, but a moment of overconfidence led to me having a memory slip on a significant portion of the piece.  I walked away from the experience feeling an overwhelming sense of failure.

Mr. Hooten helped me realize that this failure wasn’t exactly a failure at all: it was an opportunity, and ultimately that opportunity was one to question.  Question my fundamental approach to the instrument.  Question the way I mentally prepare for a competition situation.  Question why I do what I do.  All of a sudden, the world of failure became a world of learning experiences.

But how does any sense of creativity play into this?  Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the act of making original ideas that have value.”  People said Michael Jordan had failed when he didn’t make his varsity team in high school.  Two things could have happened to him. He could have quit, for “no one” made it to the pros if they didn’t make it in high school.  But Jordan chose differently: he chose to be creative, and find his own path.  He ignored the pull of tradition and the pressure of conformity.  He was freed of the people who told him he was below average.

Educationalist Ken Robinson also identifies the so-called “distractions” of today: the internet, social media, instant messaging.  But these things are a part of our changing society– one that is different from yesterday and 100 years ago.  We can cling to the past, or we can accept the reality of now and approach it in a completely creative way.  We have no idea what tomorrow will look like, so why not take a creative risk today for the chance of making tomorrow better?  As Edison would tell us, the next one just might be the one that lights up.

-JTB
johnthomasburson.com

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