Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Getting It Right

Last night, I thought more about the 'getting it right' phenomenon I wrote about yesterday in More than You Know. Apparently I was doing much of my thinking while sleeping, because at about 4AM, I suddenly sat up in bed recalling a story about virtuoso jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and virtuoso classical pianist Vladamir Horowitz. As the story goes (whole tone scales playing in the background)...
Horowitz determined that he would to put to rest forever the question of which school of pianists was truly the greatest, the jazz school or the classical school.

Horowitz purchased a copy of one of Peterson's solo recordings and learned to play one of the songs verbatim. Not only did he learn to play exactly the same notes as Peterson, but he also learned to play them flawlessly, even better than the original recording.

Horowitz arranged for a meeting with Peterson. As the two talked about the merits of the schools of music they each represented, Horowitz said to Peterson, I'd like you to hear something. He sat down at Peterson's piano and played the song he'd learned with all the virtuosity and grace of a classical master. When he was done, he turned to Peterson and said, "So, what do you think?"

Peterson who had improvised the original recording, looked at Horowitz and said, "That was great. Play something else."

Getting It Right
Over the years, I've come to realize that no matter what the discipline (music, snowboarding, medicine, business), there are innovators and there are performers. This morning, I came to the
conclusion that the primary difference between innovators and performers is how they feel about 'getting it right'.

Innovators tend not to be too concerned about getting it right. They make lots of mistakes. They're often sloppy in regard to their technique. Their main motivation is pushing the envelope, doing things that haven't been done before.

Performers on the other hand are concerned specifically with getting it right. In fact, not just getting it right, but getting it perfect. Performers may innovate in incremental ways, honing and refining what has been created by others. But in general, their motivations and skills are focused on manifesting the perfect instantiation of something well defined and understood.

Of course, you occasionally encounter someone who is both an innovator and a performer. Bach didn't just compose all those fugues, he could improvise them on the fly. Sean White seems certainly to be redefining the sport of snowboarding while also being the sport's greatest performer. However, people like Sean White and Johann Sebastian Bach seem to be pretty rare.

What's Wrong with Being Great?
Over the years, I've encountered a lot of people who were great performers, but who wanted to be counted among the innovators. In some cases, their being great performers simply wasn't enough for them; they saw being an innovator as somehow better or more prestigious or more important than being a performer.

To some extent, society seems to be of two minds. In the near term, we seem to gravitate to the great performers. However, over the long term, we tend to remember only the innovators. If you were to ask someone about current musicians that he knows, it's likely that all of them would be performers. However, if you were to ask him about musicians from two-hundred years ago, it's likely that he'd list composers, not performers.

The problem with great performers who don't consider being a great performer good enough is that they tend not to be very good at innovating. Getting it right simply gets in the way. Their work tends to be derivative rather than creative, borrowing liberally from what has been done before. When they do 'create', the creation doesn't have the kind of structural integrity found in the work of great innovators. They lack a sense of systemness. They may not even understand the notion of systemness.

In the end, innovation requires a willingness to completely abandon 'getting it right'. In some cases, the path to innovation requires intentionally getting it 'wrong', to break the mold and see what happens. Now, if you're concerned about acceptance or approval or good grades or whatever other rewards come with getting it 'right', then it's likely that you're not going to innovate.

The Innovator's Dilemma
So, how does an innovator deal with the practical aspects of getting it wrong, e.g, not being able to get or keep a job. Well, outside of the simple answer of becoming independently wealthy, one thing that comes to mind is making your passion your vocation and not your occupation.

I have many friends from music school who simply don't enjoy playing music anymore. At twenty, we were all innovators, trying new things and breaking rules. Now that they make their living from music (as teachers, composers, performers or studio musicians), there's very little innovation involved in their work. They're paid to color within the lines and to do so perfectly.

If you put yourself in the position where your livelihood depends on your craft, you're likely to lean towards getting it right. Alternatively, there's always deciding to live on less. It's amazing how much of what we never even considered owning at eighteen becomes absolutely essential at forty.

In regard to More than You Know, Sree commented on the need to get it right being quite deeply seated in most of us. I have to agree that it sure does appear that way. However, from my perspective, it comes at great cost.

OK, I can go back to sleep now.

Happy Tuesday!

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