If you want to get good at something (or, lord help you, multiple things), prepare to fail…a lot.
A while ago, I wrote about the “10,000 hour rule” – the oft-cited study that you need to put in a ton of time (specifically, 10,000 hours) to master something. I have two problems with this: 1) most people don’t have the luxury of investing that much time into anything and 2) time isn’t the only metric for determining effective practice (it’s possible to practice smarter, not harder longer).
Another problem I have with this rule is that it downplays the role of (epic, repeated) failure in successful learning and development. I have a memoir’s worth of stories of failure – of not being able to live up to others’ expectations, utterly humiliating mistakes, and rejections both personal and professional. While I have no intention of sharing most of these cringe-worthy stories, I bring it up to acknowledge the important role of failure in my own growth.
In jazz, Charlie Parker gets cited frequently as someone who overcame failure. After being humiliated and kicked of the bandstand at a jam session, he became obsessed with practice (up to 15 hours a day) and eventually became an excellent, groundbreaking musician. Setting aside the fact that Parker did this with the assistance of the heroin that later killed him at age 34, it still promotes the idea that practice is punishment and atonement for the sin of failure.
I came up with the idea of “Gig-Ready Jazz Bassist” because I wanted to emphasize preparedness over perfection. As an instructor, I try to help my students be well-prepared for performance through smart practice. The hope is that they’ll be less likely to suffer humiliating and painful failures. But that said, I also try to convey that it’s OK to fail – that my successes are a product of my failures, and that theirs’ will be too.
One final note: getting good at multiple things means failing more often and on multiple fronts. I’ve mostly talked about my failings as a student in a highly-competitive music program. While I’m glad that I chose that route because it ultimately led me to where I am now, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t still bear scars from it. In addition, I’ve experienced some pretty epic failures as a teacher and writer (I’ve even pulled down some of my older, cringe-worthy blog posts).
But that said, not everything is one big trail of failure. Once I started getting good at things like cross-stitching, graphic design, and yoga (in which no one ever saw my failures or no one especially cared if I failed), I realized that failure didn’t need to define my identity (or practice).
Have you experienced painful failures in your personal and/or professional life? If so, how has it affected your practice(s)?