How Frustration can Make us More Creative


Mistakes happen, things don't go the way we'd like them to — or they are supposed to, as planned.

What then?

Letting go of how we expect things to be in that moment is the best antidote to ruining our day. If there is anything we can learn from the story that follows is that there is potentially tremendous upside in doing so as well.

Late in January 1975, a 17-year-old German girl called Vera Brandes walked out onto the stage of the Cologne Opera House. The auditorium was empty. It was lit only by the dim, green glow of the emergency exit sign. This was the most exciting day of Vera's life. She was the youngest concert promoter in Germany, and she had persuaded the Cologne Opera House to host a late-night concert of jazz from the American musician, Keith Jarrett. 1,400 people were coming. And in just a few hours, Jarrett would walk out on the same stage, he'd sit down at the piano and without rehearsal or sheet music, he would begin to play.

But right now, Vera was introducing Keith to the piano in question, and it wasn't going well. Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said … "If you don't get a new piano, Keith can't play."

There had been a mistake. The opera house had provided the wrong instrument.

When the stakes are high, we tend to raise our expectations across the board — everything has to be perfect. Imagine what was going on in the minds and pulses of Vera Brandes. The piano they delivered:

had this harsh, tinny upper register, because all the felt had worn away. The black notes were sticking, the white notes were out of tune, the pedals didn't work and the piano itself was just too small. It wouldn't create the volume that would fill a large space such as the Cologne Opera House.

Getting a tuner was easily done, not getting a new piano. Keith Jarrett had left Brandes to it. What could she do? The only logical thing — she convinced him to play:

she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, "Never forget … only for you."

So he played:

Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

When a master plays, the impulses in the music are reduced, the music itself talks back, pushes the musician's body over so he is “one-buttock playing, says Benjamin Zander. The audience loved it then and continue to love it now. The recording of the Köln Concert went on to become the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

The storyteller is Tim Harford, of Undercover Economist fame and author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. He says we would have had the same initial reaction, and we would have been wrong, too:

any of us, in any remotely similar situation, would feel the same way, we'd have the same instinct. We don't want to be asked to do good work with bad tools. We don't want to have to overcome unnecessary hurdles.

But Jarrett's instinct was wrong, and thank goodness he changed his mind. And I think our instinct is also wrong. I think we need to gain a bit more appreciation for the unexpected advantages of having to cope with a little mess.

He then gives us examples from cognitive psychology, complexity science, social psychology, and rock 'n' roll to demonstrate why.

Cognitive psychology

We've actually known for a while that certain kinds of difficulty, certain kinds of obstacle, can actually improve our performance.

For example, the psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer, a few years ago, teamed up with high school teachers. And he asked them to reformat the handouts that they were giving to some of their classes. So the regular handout would be formatted in something straightforward, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. But half these classes were getting handouts that were formatted in something sort of intense, like Haettenschweiler, or something with a zesty bounce, like Comic Sans italicized. Now, these are really ugly fonts, and they're difficult fonts to read. But at the end of the semester, students were given exams, and the students who'd been asked to read the more difficult fonts, had actually done better on their exams, in a variety of subjects. And the reason is, the difficult font had slowed them down, forced them to work a bit harder, to think a bit more about what they were reading, to interpret it … and so they learned more.


Complexity science

For example, you try to make a jet engine. There are lots and lots of different variables, the operating temperature, the materials, all the different dimensions, the shape. You can't solve that kind of problem all in one go, it's too hard. What do you do? Well, one thing you can do is try to solve it step-by-step.


You add randomness, early on in the process, you make crazy moves, you try stupid things that shouldn't work, and that will tend to make the problem-solving work better. And the reason for that is the trouble with the step-by-step process, the marginal gains, is they can walk you gradually down a dead end. And if you start with the randomness, that becomes less likely, and your problem-solving becomes more robust.

 Social psychology

psychologist Katherine Phillips, with some colleagues, recently gave murder mystery problems to some students, and these students were collected in groups of four and they were given dossiers with information about a crime — alibis and evidence, witness statements and three suspects. And the groups of four students were asked to figure out who did it, who committed the crime. And there were two treatments in this experiment. In some cases these were four friends, they all knew each other well. In other cases, three friends and a stranger.


The three friends and the stranger, even though the stranger didn't have any extra information, even though it was just a case of how that changed the conversation to accommodate that awkwardness, the three friends and the stranger, they had a 75 percent chance of finding the right answer. That's quite a big leap in performance.

When Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups without the stranger and with them, she found that they felt better when working just among friends, they thought they had done a good job. While in the second case, they were doubtful. “And I think that really exemplifies the challenge that we're dealing with here,” says Harford:

the ugly font, the awkward stranger, the random move … these disruptions help us solve problems, they help us become more creative. But we don't feel that they're helping us. We feel that they're getting in the way … and so we resist. And that's why the last example is really important.

Yet just because we don't like these experiences, it doesn't mean they are not helping us. For the rock 'n' roll part, he calls to the work of Brian Eno as an example. He is:

a kind of catalyst behind some of the great rock 'n' roll albums of the last 40 years. He's worked with David Bowie on "Heroes," he worked with U2 on "Achtung Baby" and "The Joshua Tree," he's worked with DEVO, he's worked with Coldplay, he's worked with everybody.

And what does he do to make these great rock bands better? Well, he makes a mess. He disrupts their creative processes. It's his role to be the awkward stranger. It's his role to tell them that they have to play the unplayable piano.

And also an ambient musician, author, and creator of the Oblique Strategies, a (now rare) deck of cards and companion site. The deck contains over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas to help kick creativity in high gear.

It's hard for us to adapt, it's not a natural response we have, so we need to work on it. When something throws us off normal course, we are forced to look for a new one. And that is what helps us become more creative.

Watch the full video with the story below.




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