Tag Archives: creativity

The success in failure 

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

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Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

The expressivity/exactness matrix

A guest post by Charles Morgan Lines

“There are two components to conducting, expressiveness and exactness. These two components are in dialectical opposition to each other; in fact, they cancel each other out. A conductor must find the way to bring the two together.”

Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin, Conductor Maker

Ilya Musin (1906 to 1999) was a Russian conductor and renowned teacher of conductors. His identification of the paradox that lies at the heart of the art of conducting, the need to be both expressive and exact in one’s communication with the orchestra, is of immense significance, for not only conductors but also others who want to develop and utilise their skills to an exceptional level.

Exceptional performance within any sphere requires the ability to be both exact and expressive in our actions, to be technically reliable, accurate and consistent, and uniquely expressive, imaginative and creative. The best soccer players, golfers and tennis players can not only execute their skills perfectly time after time, but also combine and use them in new and unexpected ways that enhance their performance and surprise and delight their audiences. Think of Messi and his visionary passing, Ballesteros and his gift of recovery around the greens, Federer and his ability to wrong foot his opponents with unexpected shots and angles; they can not only execute their skills accurately and consistently but also find ways to express their personal style and uniqueness through their sport.

Many highly successful scientists are not only technically rigorous but also uniquely creative, imaginative and even playful in their approaches, again able to express their personal style and uniqueness through their vocation (Galileo and his imaginative and playful experiments, Einstein and his memorable and engaging thought experiments, and Richard Feynman and his creative and practical lectures).

So, how can we all work towards achieving and combining the exactness and expressiveness that leads to exceptional performance? The first thing to make clear is that it takes time and disciplined effort. For most of us it takes about ten years to achieve the fluency of thought and action that is an essential requirement for top level performance. Having said this, appreciating how the two dimensions of expressiveness and exactness interact with each other can act as a helpful springboard, providing the impetus for our initial and on-going efforts.
Exactness relates to our ability to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience. If we are low in exactness we will find it difficult to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively. If we are high in exactness we will more easily be able to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively.

Expressiveness relates to our ability to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are low in expressiveness we will find it difficult to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are high in expressiveness we will more easily be able to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style.

These two dimensions of exactness and expressiveness can be combined to create the above matrix, which can be used to inform and support the development of our skills and the personal style we use to deliver them.

The matrix consists of four quadrants:

The beginner quadrant is where we are at the beginning of our journey towards mastery of our skills and acquisition of our personal style. We are low in exactness and expressiveness. We do not have the skills, knowledge and experience we need and therefore lack the confidence to express ourselves and develop our personal style. Key to moving out of this quadrant is successfully identifying and taking those first few crucial steps that will help us begin to develop the skills and gain the knowledge, experience and confidence we need.

The loose cannon quadrant is where we are if expressing ourselves within our chosen field comes easily but reliable and consistent execution of its technicalities does not. We are high in expressiveness and low in exactness. We possess a personal style that needs to be polished; others commonly perceive us as possessing a ‘natural but raw talent’. We are capable of flashes of insight and brilliance but they are unpredictable and unreliable. We do not know how we succeed at things and so we find it hard to replicate those successes as and when needed. Key to moving out of this quadrant is to identify and focus on our key strengths and attributes, find out precisely why and how they work and then practise these aspects until we can call upon them at will, so ensuring consistent and effective execution. We also need to try out these aspects and approaches in different contexts to identify when they are most and least appropriate and/or effective.

The technician quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge within our chosen field accurately, consistently and effectively, but whilst doing so we find it difficult to express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and low in expressiveness. We need to identify and develop a personal style. We may be perceived as reliable and a ‘safe pair of hands’ but not a ‘star performer’ capable of delivering brilliant and unique ideas and performance. Key to moving out of this quadrant is moving away from our comfort zones and the usual or generally accepted ways of doing things. We need to explore differing approaches and ways of doing things and identify those that intrigue us, appeal to us and perhaps even positively challenge us the most. We then, through experiment and practice, need to fine tune and blend them to create our unique style, our unique way of going about our chosen work.

The maestro quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge consistently and effectively and in doing so express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and high in expressiveness. We possess a mature and evolving personal style. We are likely to be perceived as someone who can suggest different and insightful ways of looking at things and effectively implement innovative ways of doing things. We are the people organisations and businesses rely on to create their competitive edge and help them become acknowledged leaders in their fields. Key to staying in this quadrant is battling complacency. We need to continue growing and developing our skills, knowledge and experience. We need to seek out new and exciting challenges. We need to make a habit of seeking and acting upon feedback. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, we need to reinforce our own skills through helping to develop those of others.

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Charles M Lines trained as a musician and studied composition at the Colchester School of Music during the early 1980s. He joined the UK Civil Service in 1984 where he worked for various government departments, eventually specialising in management consultancy, training and development. In 1996 he became a Senior Lecturer at the UK Civil Service College.

At the age of 41 he left the Civil Service to work as an independent management consultant and trainer. He has since been in demand both at home and abroad, providing management consultancy and training events to a very wide range of clients.

He speaks and writes regularly about creative problem solving and how music’s creative principles and practices can help us all be more creative in our approach to life and work. Charles is the author of ‘Creativity in the Air: Fifty Ways Music Can Make You More Creative’ and also writes the Creativity in the Air blog

On icebergs and creativity

Musicians will be familiar with this image of an iceberg. The tip, the visible part, represents our public persona and the music we perform and share with others, while the mass which is hidden below the surface of the water represents the many hours of practise, study and preparation which enable us to perform. Anyone who believes that music flows effortlessly from the musician’s body or who thinks it is “easy” should consider this illustration below and its metaphor.

But what if we allowed others a glimpse into our practise rooms, to watch us practising, working, refining and finessing our music, to sit in on rehearsals with colleagues, and to observe the long and detailed process that goes into making a concert which may only last for 90 minutes?

In a college of art and design in the US, students are being encouraged to do just that – to offer up their work-in-progress, their rough drafts and preliminary designs, even their mistakes, for scrutiny by others in a new exhibition called ‘Permission to Fail’. We are used in exhibitions, books and concerts to seeing and hearing the finished article and I think this often makes viewers and listeners rather complacent, or even ignorant, about the long and involved creative processes which go into producing a work of art or preparing a piece of music for performance. It is all the working out, the sketching, redrawing, practising and pondering which enables us to unleash our creativity, and by learning from our mistakes and our “workings out”, we reach a finished product wrought from a special mixture of curiosity, exploration, trial and error, hard graft, and imagination.

Music practise is usually undertaken alone and in private, except when colleagues come together to rehearse ahead of a concert. Do we really want others to see us sweating over a knotty section, swearing at that passage which always trips us up, hear 50 repetitions of the same section, practising to make the music permanent and perfect? There is however a great curiosity about how musicians, and other creative people, work: I find this often manifests itself in (sometimes daft) questions about “finding the time” and much exclaiming about the amount of time one spends doing it. Then there is the ongoing “not a proper job” aspect of being a musician (or writer or artist) whereby because one loves what one is doing it can’t possibly be serious or commercial, and that practising, or drafting a synopsis or sketching out a painting, is somehow self-indulgent and without value. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa filmed her practise sessions and it was the huge popularity of these video clips that enabled her to relaunch her career. In a way, these films proved that she was a fallible human being, and offered a glimpse into her world as a working musician, which made it more comprehensible to those outside the profession.

Many art exhibitions these days will include the artist’s ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Of course for most artists, these books were private, not for public consumption and were the artist’s way of recording ideas to be worked up later in the studio: they were never intended to be shown to the public, yet they offer fascinating insights into the working practices, processes and mindset of a creative person. They also reinforce the fact that creativity is not just about the finished product, it is also about the journey to get there. I think it’s important that we as practitioners of a creative activity appreciate the the joys and frustrations, the mistakes and the eureka moments which we must go through, and to regard all of these as important staging points on the journey. The “10,000 hours rule” has largely been debunked, with an emphasis now placed more firmly on quality rather than quantity of practise. That said, one does need to put in the hours and practising should be habitual, concentrated and thoughtful.

I’ve never regarded my practising as some mystic art, to be kept secret and hidden. I’d much rather people better understand the process involved in learning and finessing music instead of saying daft things to me like “it’s amazing how it just comes out of your fingers” and “How do you do it?”. This is why I share my practise habits with my students, so that they understand that while we might undertake the practising alone, we are in fact engaged in a shared activity – creating music.

Further reading:

How Creativity is Helped by Failure

Accountability in Practice – article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch