Embrace Failure

Stop letting perfect be the enemy of good.

When I was about nine years old or so I read this hugesque biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for a school project. That thing was the biggest book my little hands had ever cracked open and I was absolutely fascinated by it. To this day there’s little stories from it that I will tell people because they’re just so weird and funny. And when I was a kid, as much as this biography humanized Mozart for me it also made me feel like I’d never amount to anything. I know that’s absurd. But Mozart wrote Mitridate, re di Ponto, when he was 14 years old and that was not his first opera.

How’s a girl gonna compete with that??

I was today years old when I could even complete singing one of the arias from Mitridate, and let me tell you something: it don’t sound great. The everything in Mitridate is incredible, but it’s also extremely technically demanding. I could tell you the range and you’d be like, “… whoa …” but that doesn’t even begin to explain how challenging this music is.

But, the thing that I haven’t told you yet is that Mozart was a colossal screw-up. He had no idea how to manage money, his time management was so bad that for one of his operas the orchestra had to sight read music still dripping with wet ink while they played the overture, and he managed to continually piss off both his patrons and his own family. He was absolutely a genius with a deep love for music, but he was also a gigantic man-child.

And he was thirty-five when he died.

Now, you can take this two ways. You can go, “zomg, I’ve done nothing with my life and Mozart wrote all of the operas by the time he was my age,” or you can go, “wow, that guy was really cool but he went sprinting to his grave.”

There’s a conspiracy theory that Mozart was murdered. I dunno. To me it sounds like infectious disease, but there’s quite a bit of research. But, the reason I mention his death in this context is because besides being raised in a musician’s household he was in a constant state of work and performance from the time he was a small child. With that in mind, it’s no wonder he died so young. It’s also no wonder he was a massive man-child.

Mozart loved music desperately and that’s clear from what he wrote, how he changed music, and his relationship with the soprano Josepha Hofer (the elder sister of Constanze, who he married). But Mozart also never got a break. He was a wunderkind and then he was the genius composer. He was never able to be just himself. And I do believe, that pressure to be perfect all the time is why he screwed up so much and why he died so young.

The craziest thing about Mozart is when you sing a Mozart aria you adhere to the notes as written as if they were passed down from on high. But, Mozart rather valued coluratura creativity. He loved improvisation and himself would often just sit down and play a thing or hear a thing and then improvise weirdness off of it. He loved doing it, and he loved when other people would play with him. So it’s really great that more and more performers in opera are starting to take Mozart’s work and add their own spin on it.

Let’s go back to Mitridate. If you’re not an opera fan, don’t listen to it because you will die. You will actually fall down dead. But when he composed that opera he was young and the given technique or style of the time was to present a melody in the first instance and then riff off that melody more and more in the second and third instances. If you look at the sheet music for “Al Destin” and “Nel Grave” that’s exactly what’s happening, but in written form.

“Nel Grave,” is the best example of this. If you then look at the sheet music for “Al Destin,” you’ll faint, but then when you come to, you’ll realize he’s essentially got two verses in there, but the way they’re written they’re the same. Now, if you go and listen to various sopranos performing these pieces in the present day you’ll find that “Nel Grave,” happens basically the same way each time, but the second verse of “Al Destin,” is a playground of madness. No soprano performs it exactly as the others do. And I really do believe that this is what Mozart wanted. I think he wanted singers to do their thing.

But, the really spectacular thing about music and the reason I’m kinda meh, on pop is that when performed by live musicians it’s always going to be just a little different to suit the mood. This is most obvious in improvisational forms like jazz, but it happens in opera and it even happens a bit in musical theatre. That’s what makes it a living thing.

Until recordings existed music could be entirely ephemeral. So if you make a mistake it’s not like it exists forever and, hey, it’s music so it’s not really a mistake.

But the really crucial part of all of this, Mozart’s short life, the improvisational manner of his greatest works, music in general, is if you don’t screw up you’ll never succeed.

I’ve been trying to remind myself of this as I learn to write commercially. If you make a grammatical or spelling error in writing, that’s just an error. It’s not art; it’s a screw up. But I have yet to have read through an entire published book outside of academia that had no spelling or grammatical errors. Not one. These are books that have been edited, proofread, poured over, and reread multiple times and there’s still mistakes in them. Some of them are written by new authors sure, but a lot of them have been written by people with decades long careers.

Science is about screwing up. It’s about screwing up a lot. Not only are you basically expected to screw up in science, but other people are supposed to repeat your errors and make sure it’s actually wrong. I included an entire section on observer error both for landmark placement and osteoarthritis diagnosis in my thesis because I needed to show how often I screwed up and how consistent my screw ups were. This is not a weird thing. Entire studies are done just on intra and interobserver error.

Humans make mistakes. It is known.

If you’re so paralyzed that you won’t be perfect then you will indeed never be perfect. You won’t even be good. So, get back on the horse. Try not to make mistakes, but as long as you learn and as long as you own it you’ll probably be fine. Probably. I mean, Genghis Khan did die from injuries taken during a rather rough tumble off a horse so all screw ups are not recoverable, but he was also a genocidal crazypants so … well, that’s why I chose to talk about Mozart. As far as I know Mozart never erected a pyramid of skulls.

So, I know I’m one to talk with my paralyzing fear of contacting literary agents and publishers to pitch my already completed non-fiction book to, but I think a lot of you may need to hear this as much as I do. Stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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