Plan to improvise

Even more than my martial arts practice, music has taught me to live in a state of flow. Earth-shattering emergencies are almost routine on the road, and you have to deal with them in the moment, not when you feel ready to tackle them. Schedules change, venues cancel, bandmates get left behind in gas stations, speakers blow, the audience never shows up, your guitar gets stolen, your band takes too much acid and winds up out of commission—touring musicians see it all.

These obstacles, as irritating as they may be, are a primary driver of my success as a musician. This is true in every other part of my life, too. It is almost a tautology: no one can triumph without something to triumph over. I could not win over an audience if I had not lost them. I could not save hostages if someone had not taken them.

Tom Brokaw coined the term the greatest generation to refer to people who went through the great depression and fought in World War II. They overcame so much in part because there was so much for them to overcome; they had the opportunity to be great because the world they lived in was terrible.

Greatness comes from challenge

Keith Jarrett is a jazz musician who has had a long and well-respected career. One of his albums (and only one) has gone on to be a huge success, both in and out of the jazz world. It is a live album recorded in Köln, Germany in 1975.

"Köln was different, because there were just so many negative things in a row," Mr. Jarrett recalls in the documentary.

He had not slept in two nights. The piano he had ordered did not arrive in time for the concert. The one in the hall was substandard, sounding tinny and thin in the outer registers. Mr. Jarrett nearly refused to play, changing his mind at the last minute. Almost as an afterthought, the sound technicians decided to place the mikes and record the concert, even if only for the house archive. Later, longtime friend and record producer Manfred Eicher said: "Probably he played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with it he found another way to get the most out of it."

A Jazz Night to Remember, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

When Keith Jarrett arrived at the concert hall, exhausted from travel, the requested Bösendorfer Grand piano was nowhere to be found. The piano waiting for him was too small for the sound he wanted, and barely playable after hours of tuning. The pedals did not work properly. He would never have willingly selected it, and he considered refusing to play and canceling the concert.

The recording of his performance that night went on to become the bestselling solo jazz album and the bestselling piano album in history1.

Keith Jarrett was not new to piano concerts or jazz. The Köln Concert was not his first album, nor was it his last. But it remains his most famous, most widely influential, and most popular album. If left to his own devices, if allowed to play his music his way without any constraints or limitations, it would never have existed.

Success is not an accident

Obstacles do not guarantee triumph, but they do allow for it. What helps turn an obstacle around into a victory rather than a defeat is everything leading up to the moment. I have a good chance now of regaining an audience I have lost, but only because I can draw on an array of experiences, including the many times it did not work out.

Economist and author Tim Harford has a TED talk that goes into detail on this topic, and his take on the concert in Köln.

Tim Harford's TED talk on how challenges can increase creativity.

Keith Jarrett went into the Köln concert with huge obstacles in front of him, but that is only half the story. At his back, he carried with him decades of relevant training, practice, and experience. He had played terrible shows and successful ones. He had wrestled with instruments before, and his chosen field of music centered around improvisation. Forcing a limitation on someone capable of improvising is like building a trellis for a tomato plant. It only lets them climb higher.

There is an old and stubbornly resilient platitude that claims the word "crisis" in Chinese is created by joining together the words for "danger" and "opportunity." This claim is 100% wrong, and I hope you tune in and get skeptical around anyone who repeats the story as though it were a fact.

But just because the story is fantasy rather than fact does not mean the idea behind it has no merit. The concept holds at least a small amount of water, even if the story illustrating it is fiction. Life will present you with moments of challenge. None of us get a choice in that regard, so it is in our best interests to be prepared to make the most of it.

When the original plan gets torn to shreds, it is time to say "Yes, and..." to life and do what you can to move forward in an interesting direction.

Skill, luck, and the ability to improvise can transform setbacks into opportunities.

Andrew Reeves is an entrepreneur, touring musician, and practitioner of eleven martial arts. He reached financial independence at age 28 and has dedicated his retirement to fighting crime and helping others.


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    I was able to track the "bestselling" claim down to The Guardian, but I could not locate a primary source with the relevant raw numbers.

What are you doing to prepare for the worst? Can you think of a time when something going wrong turned out to be the best thing that could have happened? What was the last jazz album you listened to?


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