From TED: What is a mistake? By talking through exam­ples with his impro­vi­sa­tional Jazz quartet, Stefon Harris walks us to a profound truth: many actions are perceived as mistakes only because we don’t react to them appro­pri­ately.


Okay, I have no idea what we’re going to play. I won’t be able to tell you what it is until it happens. I didn’t realize there was going to be a little music before. So I think I’m going to start with what I just heard.


Okay, so first of all, let’s welcome Mr. Jamire Williams on the drums, Burniss Travis on the bass, and Mr. Chris­tian Sands on the piano.

So the band­stand, as we call it, this is an incred­ible space. It is really a sacred space. And one of the things that is really sacred about it is that you have no oppor­tu­nity to think about the future, or the past. You really are alive right here in this moment. There are so many deci­sions being made when you walk on the band­stand. We had no idea what key we were going to play in. In the middle, we sort of made our way into a song called “Titi Boom.” But that could have happened — maybe, maybe not. Everyone’s listening. We’re responding. You have no time for projected ideas.

So the idea of a mistake: From the perspec­tive of a jazz musi­cian, it’s easier to talk about someone else’s mistake. So the way I perceive a mistake when I’m on the band­stand — first of all, we don’t really see it as a mistake. The only mistake lies in that I’m not able to perceive what it is that someone else did. Every “mistake” is an oppor­tu­nity in jazz. So it’s hard to even describe what a funny note would be.

So for example, if I played a color, like we were playing on a palate, that sounded like this … (Music) So if Chris­tian played a note — like play an F. (Music) See, these are all right inside of the color palate. If you played an E. See, these all lie right inside of this general emotional palate that we were painting. If you played an F# though, (Disso­nance) to most people’s ears, they would perceive that as a mistake.

So I’m going to show you, we’re going to play just for a second. And we’re going to play on this palate. And at some point, Chris­tian will intro­duce this note. And we won’t react to it. He’ll intro­duce it for a second and then I’ll stop, I’ll talk for a second. We’ll see what happens when we play with this palate. (Music)

So someone could concep­tu­ally perceive that as a mistake. The only way that I would say it was a mistake is in that we didn’t react to it. It was an oppor­tu­nity that was missed. So it’s unpre­dictable. We’ll paint this palate again. He’ll play it. I don’t know how we’ll react to it, but some­thing will change. We’ll all accept his ideas, or not. (Music)

So you see, he played this note. I ended up creating a melody out of it. The texture changed in the drums this time. It got a little bit more rhythmic, a little bit more intense in response to how I responded to it. So there is no mistake. The only mistake is if I’m not aware, if each indi­vidual musi­cian is not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incor­po­rate the idea and we don’t allow for creativity.

So jazz, this band­stand is absolutely amazing. It’s a very puri­fying expe­ri­ence. And I know that I speak for all of us when I tell you that we don’t take it for granted. We know that to be able to come on the band­stand and play music is a blessing. So how does this all relate to behavior of finance? Well we’re jazz musi­cians, so stereo­typ­i­cally we don’t have a great rela­tion­ship to finance.

Anyway, I just wanted to sort of point out the way that we handle it. And the other dynamic of it is that we don’t micro­manage in jazz. You have some people who do. But what that does is it actu­ally limits the artistic possi­bil­i­ties. If I come up and I dictate to the band that I want to play like this and I want the music to go this way, and I just jump right in … ready, just play some time. One, two, one, two, three, four. (Music) It’s kind of chaotic because I’m bullying my ideas. I’m telling them, “You come with me over this way.”

If I really want the music to go there, the best way for me to do it is to listen. This is a science of listening. It has far more to do with what I can perceive than what it is that I can do. So if I want the music to get to a certain level of inten­sity, the first step for me is to be patient, to listen to what’s going on and pull from some­thing that’s going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musi­cians and they give you more, and grad­u­ally it builds. Watch. One, two, a one, two, three, four. (Music)

Totally different expe­ri­ence when I’m pulling ideas. It’s much more organic. It’s much more nuanced. It’s not about bullying my vision or anything like that. It’s about being here in the moment, accepting one another and allowing creativity to flow. Thank you.