This quote from Bill Gates has been stuck in my mind since I saw it at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI!) not long ago. I teach and believe that we practice to be successful, that we work to achieve a successful outcome...but what is the definition of success?
Dictionary.com defines success as "the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals." Ouch! That first part really changes things for me. One of the things I celebrate as a musician and teacher is that the process never ends . . . there's always more to learn, to try, to investigate, to listen to, to play, to see; and perhaps a better or different way to try all of the above. Granted, it's important to acknowledge meeting one's goals - that surely IS an achievement. The desire to accomplish a goal is highly motivational; it moves us forward. However, Dictionary.com underlines the end of action ("a termination of attempts or endeavors"), preceded by the end of inquiry, because there is no more need to look further or deeper or differently. We're "done."
Getting back to the Gates quote, does being successful promote a state of "doneness"? A state of having exhausted all the possibilities? To me, this quote captures that sense of playing a piece really well, or winning an audition, and then suddenly feeling . . . invincible. You all know what I mean, as experience is often the best teacher. Go ahead and experience that sense of accomplishment, but remain curious before human nature kicks in. Prepare for the unexpected, try new things, and ask questions. I may get tired, especially during the final week of classes, but I hope I remain curious!
The other issue with this quote that continues to nag me is the fact that we will all fail at some point and at some task. Failure is not nearly as glamorous as success, and yet it is a very common, if not daily, occurrence. Although not pleasant, if we're not failing at something during the day, then we may not be taking enough chances. The safest arena for us musicians to experiment with this is, of course, the practice room. Be willing to go there, and then we do fail, let's figure out why. That's at the heart of Bill Gates' wisdom: we equip ourselves with knowledge and insight gained through the experience of failing. Remember that quote attributed to Einstein about the definition of insanity? It's doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. How often do we resort to this in our practicing (and living)? Be willing to fail and to figure out why.
So with all of this in mind, consider that Success can be a Lousy Teacher, while Failure can likewise be a Fantastic Teacher. Success can terminate action, while Failure can drive us forward, if we take the initiative to use it, learn from it, and move through it.