My friend Elizabeth invited me to see a theater production with her in Boston this past Saturday. She asked me weeks ago. I knew the show was about Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that’s about it. I hadn’t heard of it, nor could I remember what it was about, so when people asked me what we were going to see I always responded, “I have no idea. I know it’s about Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis and a few other rockers, but that’s all I got.”
So on Saturday, the two of us went out for lunch and were walking around the Boston Public Garden before the show. We were talking about how, in our society, we aren’t allowed to make mistakes. If we make a mistake on an exam, we get points marked off, but then we’re seldom (if ever) allowed to go back and learn from them. My teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, often says, “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” I love that. Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can really benefit from incorporating that into our lives.
In many of our work places, we also are not allowed to fail or make a mistake. We play small because of that fear. Brené Brown has said she has been asked to speak to corporations who don’t want her to talk about shame and vulnerability, the two topics she does research on – but rather to focus on creativity and innovation. She says that you can’t have creativity or innovation without vulnerability because they are FULL of vulnerability. It’s all about trying something, and if that doesn’t work, trying something else. When does a person feel more vulnerable than in trying something that they don’t know if it will work or not?
So as we were walking into the theater I was telling Elizabeth about a story Tal had told us on one of our video lectures about legendary CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson (apparently he’s legendary. I had never heard of him). When one of his employees was working on a project and made a mistake that cost IBM $1,000,000. Back in the 50’s, a million dollars was worth a lot more than it is today. And the employee really admired Watson, the CEO, and he went to Watson’s office and gave him a letter. Thomas Watson opens the letter, and he sees it’s a letter of resignation, and Watson says to the employee, “What is this?” And the employee says to him, “Well, Sir, you know I respect you very much and I’m very grateful for all that you have done for me, but I made a mistake that cost IBM a lot of money. I don’t want to put you through having to fire me, and so I’m resigning.” And Thomas Watson said, “Fire you? I’m going to fire you? I’ve just invested a million dollars in your education and I’m going to fire you?!!”
It was at that moment when the usher handed me the playbill. The name of the play? Million Dollar Quartet.
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(The show was a lot of fun. It was about Sam Phillips and Sun Records. One night in 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis [whom Sam Phillips had just signed], Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley [who had gone on to RCA records by this time] were all in the studio together that one night in December of 1956…)