• Jeffrey Nytch

Creative Failure

Let me start by quoting an interesting Blog by R. Keith Sawyer of the University of Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center:


In 1949, the comedian Sid Caesar brought together a legendary group of comedy writers and created one of the biggest television hits of the 1950s, Your Show of Shows. Caesar's team included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Neil Simon. It may have been the greatest writing staff in the history of television. Caesar created a fun and improvisational environment, where the team would riff on each other's ideas. The writers felt like they belonged to something greater than themselves. I call it "group flow."


To understand the roots of group flow, it helps to understand a bit more about how individuals find flow. Famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people are more likely to get into flow when their environment has four important characteristics:

First, they're doing something where their skills match the challenge of the task.

Second, flow occurs when the goal is clear.


Third, when there's constant, immediate feedback about how close you are to that goal.

Fourth, flow occurs when you're free to fully concentrate on the task.


Jazz ensembles rarely experience flow during rehearsal; group flow seems to require an audience, and the accompanying risk of real, meaningful failure. Jazz musicians and improv theater ensembles never know how successful a performance will be, and they learn not to ignore the feeling of stage fright but to harness it, using it as a powerful force to push them toward flow. Research shows us over and over again that the twin sibling of innovation is frequent failure. There's no creativity without failure, and there's no group flow without the risk of failure. These two common research findings go hand in hand, because group flow is often what produces the most significant innovations.


Let’s take a moment to ponder this statement: “Research shows us over and over again that the twin sibling of innovation is frequent failure.” That may be an uncomfortable thought to some of you. Our educational system does not train us to embrace failure, but rather to avoid it at all costs. This can be especially true in our musical education, where there is a fairly high degree of objective “right” vs. “wrong” (either you are playing the correct notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations, or you’re not). But one of the core principles of entrepreneurship is the idea that failure is a necessary part of success. In fact, many of the entrepreneurs I’ve met since moving to Boulder practically brag about how many business ventures they’ve started – and how many have failed. You see, they realize that each of those failures is a precious opportunity to learn, to refine their idea, and to dramatically improve their chances of the success the next time around.



So for those of us who haven’t studied Jazz or improvisational theatre, how do we learn to “flow”? How do we learn to “creatively fail”? I think we have to start with our dreams: what are the things you wish you could do, but your fear of failure (or a lack of clarity how to proceed) stood in the way? And then look at those four conditions that Csikszentmihalyi identified: are there others you can team with the requisite skills to accomplish the task? Can you clearly define the goal you’re seeking? How can you and your teammates gather and concentrate on the task? C’s work suggests that if you can satisfy these criteria, the creative environment needed to produce viable ideas will emerge. And that’s the most important step to attaining your goals. The rest is simply gathering the tools you need to execute your Plan.

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