The Wisdom of Mistakes

One of my favourite musician stories is an anecdote Herbie Hancock shared about a concert he played in 1964 as the pianist in Miles Davis’ group in Stuttgart, Germany. It has an unconventional twist to it because rather than the usual recalling of how on top of their game the band was, his recollection actually centres around a wrong chord he played.

Many musicians have had the experience of mistakenly playing the wrong chord, note or beat during a performance (or for that matter a writing session) and finding that the thing they played ended up sounding better than what they’d intended. Herbie’s account runs on similar lines but takes the meaning of the event much further.

He takes up the story at 2:06 up to 5:34.

What’s remarkable is Herbie uses this experience on the bandstand as an analogy for what takes place in the process of everyday life. The phrase “turning poison into medicine” draws upon his Buddhist practice. I’m also reminded of the Kybalion (ancient Egyptian-based hermetic writings), and two of its seven principles/laws – ‘correspondence’ and ‘polarity’ respectively. The law of correspondence relates to how you can draw analogies from one life situation as a way of teaching you about something else that may be ostensibly unrelated. In this case we have the details of a musical performance being put forward as a metaphor for life. There’s also the law of polarity, which the Kybalion presents as follows:

“Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.” (The Kybalion)

Let’s say someone finds themselves in a challenging situation, due to their own or others’ mistakes and bad choices. By being open enough to reflect and learn the lessons contained therein, the person can grow and the same situation becomes transformed from being “poisonous” to its polar opposite – medicine i.e. something that’s healing. The important point being that they had to make the mistake in order to then experience the growth. Just as Miles might not have played those amazing melodies without Herbie’s ‘wrong chord’.

Perhaps Miles Davis was right when he said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”. Then again, all truths are but half-truths.