I heard this story during in an NPR podcast yesterday during my morning run. Beginning with my time at ITRI where the teams were made of people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities I’ve believed that change, disruption, conflict, friction and chaos can help foster great work. It at least spurs ideas and makes for an engaging and fun workplace.
In 1975, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett played a concert that would go down in history. For this performance in Cologne, he used an old, virtually unplayable Bösendorfer piano – the only one available at the venue.Jarrett couldn’t play the ancient piano like he would a new one. It was out of tune, too quiet, the pedals were sticky and the high notes had a tinny ring to them. So instead, he improvised.To cope with the poor resonance, he played rumbling bass riffs. To boost the volume, he played while standing, pushing the keys harder and thereby giving the piece a new intensity. It was by playing in this unorthodox manner that he created a unique work of art.This is not unusual: disruptions force us to find new, creative approaches. After all, as long as our habits and routines are functional, there’s no need to alter them. Novel, potentially far-superior practices are usually discovered in periods of disruption.
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.
We need to deal with the awkward strangers, we need to try to read the ugly fonts, we need to embrace difficult situations, and we need to place ourselves willingly in these environments. It helps us. It helps us solve problems and be more creative.