I’m reading Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It’s a book about how we should consider failure an integral part of learning, of becoming good at something, of how marginal gains add up to create success. I see it at work day in, day out in my day gig. So much so that I’m a little too close to the wood to see the trees at times.
But recently I had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the company of top world squash players and their managers and coaches at an exhibition match between Ramy Ashour, Reneem el-Weleily, Laura Massaro and James Willstrop – the very best of the best in their field. For a squash fan like me, it was so cool to hang out with them.
Conversations with the athletes and their coaches and agents – the artists, record producers and managers of their business – opened up angles of thought quite relevant to my day job.
Trying to make it
One of the managers has a young protege who, at the tender age of 14, is winning all the age groups and is on course to be a successful pro. A lot can still go wrong, but the groundwork is being done meticulously, tournament after tournament, training session following another.
Young athletes make their way through the ranks by slogging it out in shit little local tournaments, the equivalents of The Dublin Castle on a Tuesday night. By the time they succeed on the pro circuit there simply are no surprise winners of tournaments. They’ve been long in the making.
Learning from failure
In sport as in music, there are excellent, well funded systems to assist an athlete’s or a musician’s journey from trying to failing and trying again.
One of the coaches reckoned that the better the system, the more the player looks to the system to do the work. They forget to scrap it out.
Music lessons in schools and degrees from universities offer a similar route. Success, however, still demands that you slog it out. Not everyone has to go to school to learn to do it. The school of musical knowledge that comes from playing in bars is equally good. But you have to play a lot of bars. Slog it out.
Was It Better In My Day?
There we were, a bunch of middle aged men, drinking beer and discussing our respective trades. Whenever older guys start banging on about how younger guys aren’t busting ass enough, you need to be careful.
The thing is, though, that anyone who has been able to have a career in something as difficult as music or sport – let’s face it, they are the two “dream” careers for most people – knows how bloody hard it is. When we see behaviour or attitudes that don’t fit in with reality, we have every right to raise our eyebrows.
Learning From Failure
Reality TV and social media combine to promote the idea of instant success. The fear of failure is bigger, the more exposure you have, because people can see your failure in public. If your mindset is closed off to learning from failure you will either try to find excuses for your failure, or you’ll avoid doing anything that might fail.
The outcome is that you won’t succeed.
Do you accept unsolicited demos…?
In music, artist managers, A&R people, independent labels, record producers and so on, all look for new artists. In this hyper connected world of ours very little of worth goes unnoticed anymore.
The willingness to slog it out will eventually create something of worth that gets your phone ringing. Examples of slogging it in music out are:
- when you go to a new city for the first time and only five men and a dog turn up, the promoter is a dick and the sound bad, don’t say it was a gig not worth doing. Anything’s better than staying at home making announcements on Facebook. If you were good, there will be ten men and maybe a cat in the audience next time. The only way to find out is to go again, so that they can bring a friend.
- when you go and there are still only five men and a dog, but they’re not the same men and dog…. it means that the first lot weren’t impressed enough to come again, let alone recommend the experience to a mate.
- by playing a better show you can turn things around.
- writing just enough to have an EP’s worth of songs is kind of like assuming there is a shortage of EPs in the world, and someone somewhere simply has to have an EP by another unknown band.
- instead, spend three months writing a song every day. You’ll end up with a hundred songs, assuming that on a few days you’ll come up with more than one. The chances of one of them being a bit of a gem are much higher than the five written specifically for an EP being of any interest to anyone.
- the more of something you do, the better at it you get. Three months is not a long time, either.
- rehearsing until you don’t make mistakes is much harder than rehearsing until you get it right. It’s the former that is the domain of professionals.
- investing in you career and taking risks on a constant, never ending basis is an entry level 101 requirement. Opting for the no risk DIY approach is the equivalent of admitting to yourself that you don’t believe in yourself. It’s just masked as being cool and with it, sticking it to the man. Yeah, right.
- sticking it to the man is always a good idea. It will make you very unpopular at first. Then it will get you ridiculed. Then you win.
Someone smart said that. Brownie points if you guess who.
Danny Starr is a young artist slogging it out. Here the Londoner is at Sofar Sounds in Cardiff.