Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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'd been a mistake.

  • The opera house had provided the wrong instrument.

  • This one 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.

  • So Keith Jarrett left.

  • He went and sat outside in his car,

  • leaving Vera Brandes

  • to get on the phone to try to find a replacement piano.

  • Now she got a piano tuner,

  • but she couldn't get a new piano.

  • And so 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."

  • And so a few hours later,

  • Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house,

  • he sat down at the unplayable piano

  • and began.

  • (Music)

  • 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.

  • It's an electrifying performance.

  • It somehow has this peaceful quality,

  • and at the same time it's full of energy,

  • it's dynamic.

  • And the audience loved it.

  • Audiences continue to love it

  • because the recording of theln Concert

  • is the best-selling piano album in history

  • and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

  • Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess.

  • He had embraced that mess, and it soared.

  • But let's think for a moment about Jarrett's initial instinct.

  • He didn't want to play.

  • Of course,

  • I think 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.

  • So let me give you some examples

  • from cognitive psychology,

  • from complexity science,

  • from social psychology,

  • and of course, rock 'n' roll.

  • So cognitive psychology first.

  • 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.

  • Another example.

  • The psychologist Shelley Carson has been testing Harvard undergraduates

  • for the quality of their attentional filters.

  • What do I mean by that?

  • What I mean is, imagine you're in a restaurant,

  • you're having a conversation,

  • there are all kinds of other conversations going on in the restaurant,

  • you want to filter them out,

  • you want to focus on what's important to you.

  • Can you do that?

  • If you can, you have good, strong attentional filters.

  • But some people really struggle with that.

  • Some of Carson's undergraduate subjects struggled with that.

  • They had weak filters, they had porous filters --

  • let a lot of external information in.

  • And so what that meant is they were constantly being interrupted

  • by the sights and the sounds of the world around them.

  • If there was a television on while they were doing their essays,

  • they couldn't screen it out.

  • Now, you would think that that was a disadvantage ...

  • but no.

  • When Carson looked at what these students had achieved,

  • the ones with the weak filters

  • were vastly more likely

  • to have some real creative milestone in their lives,

  • to have published their first novel,

  • to have released their first album.

  • These distractions were actually grists to their creative mill.

  • They were able to think outside the box because their box was full of holes.

  • Let's talk about complexity science.

  • So how do you solve a really complex --

  • the world's full of complicated problems --

  • how do you solve a really complicated problem?

  • 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.

  • So what do you do?

  • Well, one thing you can do is try to solve it step-by-step.

  • So you have some kind of prototype

  • and you tweak it, you test it, you improve it.

  • You tweak it, you test it, you improve it.

  • Now, this idea of marginal gains will eventually get you a good jet engine.

  • And it's been quite widely implemented in the world.

  • So you'll hear about it, for example, in high performance cycling,

  • web designers will talk about trying to optimize their web pages,

  • they're looking for these step-by-step gains.

  • That's a good way to solve a complicated problem.

  • But you know what would make it a better way?

  • A dash of mess.

  • 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.

  • Let's talk about social psychology.

  • So the 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.

  • And you can see where I'm going with this.

  • Obviously I'm going to say

  • that the groups with the stranger solved the problem more effectively,

  • which is true, they did.

  • Actually, they solved the problem quite a lot more effectively.

  • So the groups of four friends,

  • they only had a 50-50 chance of getting the answer right.

  • Which is actually not that great --

  • in multiple choice, for three answers? 50-50's not good.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • But I think what's really interesting

  • is not just that the three friends and the stranger did a better job,

  • but how they felt about it.

  • So when Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups of four friends,

  • they had a nice time,

  • they also thought they'd done a good job.

  • They were complacent.

  • When she spoke to the three friends and the stranger,

  • they had not had a nice time --

  • it's actually rather difficult, it's rather awkward ...

  • and they were full of doubt.

  • They didn't think they'd done a good job even though they had.

  • And I think that really exemplifies

  • the challenge that we're dealing with here.

  • Because, yeah --

  • 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.

  • So I want to talk about somebody

  • from the background of the world of rock 'n' roll.

  • And you may know him, he's actually a TED-ster.

  • His name is Brian Eno.

  • He is an ambient composer -- rather brilliant.

  • He's also 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?