Embrace the Messy Opportunities in Our Lives

Messy situations make us feel uncomfortable. We naturally shy away from difficult circumstances that give the impression they will not work out or the outcome is uncertain. Fear of not being right or making a mistake stand in our way, perhaps, or being unwilling to put in the effort to solve a problem that might otherwise be avoided.

Students often manifest these same behaviors. Growing Leaders blogger Tim Elmore observes that young people are more concerned than ever with being perfect. Yet, if we are striving to cultivate a growth mindset in students, we know mistake avoidance can be the bane of learning. Mindset Works co-founder Eduardo Brinceño writes, “An appreciation of mistakes helps us overcome our fear of making them, enabling us to take risks.” How might we foster an appreciation of the mistake making and risk taking opportunities in our lives and those of our students’?

I find storytelling to be a great medium. In his TED Talk How Frustration Can Make Us More Creative, economist Tim Harford opens with the story of how one of the best-selling solo jazz albums of all time came to be, or almost did not.

The album is a recording of jazz musician Keith Jarrett performing solo piano at the Cologne Opera in 1975. Mr. Jarrett arrived to meet the concert producer the day of the show to test the piano, worn out from travel and certainly not in the frame of mind to deal with a problem. He immediately discovered the wrong piano had been delivered to the stage. It was a piano meant only to be used for practice, too small and too tinny for the venue and not working properly. The concert producer tried frantically to get the piano Mr. Jarrett had requested, but there wasn’t enough time before the sold-out show that evening. Mr. Jarrett’s initial inclination was to refuse to perform, feeling the piano was unplayable; however, the 17-year-old producer (at the time the youngest concert producer in Germany) must have been very convincing and he decided to play.

The rest is musical history. What happened is the mess of the unplayable piano disrupted what Mr. Jarrett had set out to do that evening. He used only certain keys and a lower register on the piano, and also played with more pressure than normal. The result was one of the most innovative sounds and jazz compositions ever recorded on piano. In other words, according to Mr. Harford in his TED Talk, a messy situation sparked creative genius.

Messiness and disruption make us more creative, and even though we might naturally try desperately to avoid it, we should lean into that discomfort. Putting ourselves deliberately into messy, novel, challenging, uncomfortable situations is good for our creativity and problem-solving. I found Head of School Greg Bamford’s recent post on improvisation and leadership to be a good reminder that there are proven ways of practicing the art of leaning into discomfort.

Take time to listen to Mr. Jarrett’s famous recording and reflect on how we too can lean into discomfort and foster the same openness and courage in ourselves as leaders and in our students.

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The premier, fully accredited, independent TK-8 college preparatory school in Sonoma County. Located in northern Santa Rosa and proud home of The Jackson Theater, SCDS offers a challenging academic program rich in fine and performing arts, music, world languages, and social and emotional learning. For more than thirty years SCDS has been the school that brings learning to life.