One sure way to instantly fascinate me is to sit down and play piano. You can pick anything from Beethoven to a tune you heard on the radio and I guarantee I will be fascinated. If you are so fascinated, you may ask, why don’t you play? It is a good question – but I haven’t really learned how. And it’s not because my parents were too busy to sign me up for lessons or couldn’t afford the instrument. The opposite was true: I grew up around three different pianos and took lessons from grade 2. The only obstacle was in my head.
It all started with my first piano teacher. She had a steel-cold face and a piercing voice. She beat the rhythm by tapping her stilettos on the floor and hovered over me with a long bendy ruler in her hand. She informed me matter-of-factly that the ruler will be landing on my fingers in any of the 3 cases:
- If I hit a wrong key,
- If I hit the right key but with a wrong finger
- And if I stopped playing before she told me to.
Something was telling me she would have no problem following through with her words and I didn’t take them lightly. I was terrified of her and never enjoyed our lessons. When other kids showcased their talents happily, I avoided the exposure. I went through the motions with the only goal on mind – not to make a single mistake. Luckily, one day I was freed of this woman when my family moved to a different city. Then a very strange thing happened – with no prior notice, my tormentor moved too. She got a job with my new school and was assigned as my piano teacher again. She even brought her bendy ruler with her! And my musical hell started all over again!
Somehow I never told anyone on her. Knowing my parents I figured they would be outraged to find out someone entertained the thought of hitting their child and she would get in deep trouble. So I stuck with it until I was old enough to put an end to our lessons. Even though I never did get slapped – across my fingers or otherwise, the fear of making a mistake lingered around for a long time and not even once I was inclined to lift a piano lid again.
This might be one extreme example, but the mentality of looking down at those who make mistakes persists in our society. Decades later and oceans away I still see it. I have met people from all walks of life – who have been affected by living in a culture that stigmatizes failure while glorifying success at any level and often, at any cost. Let’s take modern workplaces. You won’t see management run around with bendy rulers in their hands – but there are other ways to punish mistakes. Those non-physical methods are capable of causing detrimental and lasting damage too:
- People stop taking responsibility for their actions. They are ready to sweep everything under the rug if the reasons to fear repercussions are strong enough.
- People choose to tread the safe waters and never venture off to do something extraordinary. When forced to attend meetings they keep their ideas to themselves if that’s the price of avoiding harsh criticism and ugly confrontations. By minimizing risk, many miss out on learning opportunities.
- In the culture of “Zero Tolerance to Failure” everyone loses. Employee morale goes down when human spirit and self-worth die. Organizations lose when general lack of initiative and innovation take away from their competitive potential.
I learned about a Fortune 500 lawn products company Toro that does the opposite by fostering a “Freedom to Fail” environment. This Minnesota-based corporation implemented a new technology and thought they had done a thorough job of considering in advance all of the engineering, materials and production issues that may arise. Unfortunately the technology they launched failed to provide consistent quality at the high manufacturing rates and they only discovered this after the product hit the field and annual stock orders have been filled. The new process had to be scrapped. A few months later the four managers responsible for this project were called into the CEO’s office. Naturally they expected the worst, but it turned out they were invited for a celebration with balloons and refreshments. “Most innovative ideas don’t work out, you need a few tries before they succeed – so keep creating even in the aftermath of a failure” – was the message they got from their (now retired) CEO Ken Melrose who perfectly well described their corporate culture in his book titled “Making Grass Greener on Your Side”.
It’s not my intention to glamorize failure. We all know it comes with cost and with pain. No one enjoys making mistakes and they aren’t the end goal for us. Ultimately, success is. But we have to treat our failures as necessary stepping stones on our way to success.
As for me, I thought I’d never come near a piano again, but never say never. All these years later my daughter showed interest and asked if I could teach her how to play. To my surprise I was able to get her started with some basics. She took it from there and surpassed by far any piano skill level I ever possessed. I see it as my job to teach her not to get dismayed by failures or think any less of herself because of her mistakes. I want my daughter and everyone else to remember – it’s by getting our hands dirty we gain the much valued firsthand experience that nothing else provides.