The old saying (can’t think of the author – sounds like Oscar Wilde, though) was: there are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it. Or that old stand-by: Careful what you wish for (you might get it).
David Brooks, columnist for the NYT, recently wrote an intriguing column entitled: The Creative Monopoly. He leads with a story about Peter Thiel, a bright grad of Stanford and Stanford law, who didn’t get what he wanted: a Supreme Court clerkship. But instead of becoming, say, an ambulance chaser who moans nightly to bartenders about thwarted dreams, he harnessed that ambition and tried something else. He founded a little company called – you might have heard of it – Paypal. In his spare time he was an early investor in another little company you might have heard of: Facebook. And on and on. Currently in his spare time he teaches CS183: Startup – a class in the computer science department at Stanford (Blake Masters has posted an essay version of his class notes – read them here – they’re excellent). No surprise there.
David Brooks summarizes his Thiel’s thesis, which has to do with our confused idea of competing in the marketplace. What most people (or companies) try to do is compete against everyone else in the same thing. So there is one winner (more or less) and a lot of losers. Competition, Thiel says, is not necessarily “unqualifiedly (sic) good.” Sometimes it’s better to stop trying to compete and become a monopoly in something brand new.
Like PayPal. “It’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.” By monopoly he doesn’t mean eliminate all rivals. He means do something creative and new that no one else (or not many, anyway) has thought of doing yet.
It’s easy to be swept up in competition at every level, and it only gets worse, more intense as you go up the ladder – high school, undergrad, grad school, professional world. It gets harder and harder. Peter Thiel: “Too often in the race to compete, we learn to confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent that it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. .. It’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your trajectory towards monopoly.”
David Brooks, paraphrasing Thiel: “Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it.”
One problem with competition is that it “sometimes inhibits the creativity it requires.” Creative people don’t race with the rats. They go off the track and find their own path where no one has been before. The competition model as applied to schools rewards people who compete and follow the beaten paths, who know how to play the system and take the “right” subjects and get good grades. This model “undermines innovation.”
David Brooks: “You know somebody has been sucked into the competitive myopia when they start using sports or war metaphors. Sports and war are competitive enterprises. If somebody hits three home runs against you in the top of the inning, your job is to go hit four home runs in the bottom of the inning.
“But business, politics, intellectual life and most other realms are not like that. In most realms, if somebody hits three home runs against you in one inning, you have the option of picking up your equipment and inventing a different game. You don’t have to compete; you can invent.”
The music world in many ways resembles the competitiveness that business, politics, and sports are steeped in. Winners work on audition material and solos to beat out everyone else in getting a job. There are very few jobs anymore and many, many qualified applicants. If you’re reading this blog, you may be one of those creative types who are looking for a new game (congratulations to you if you went through the whole music education system and still have some creative impulses in you – I would like to hear your story about that). I went through the system and did almost no creative activity on my first instrument (the horn) for decades (I did do stuff – improvising, writing, composing – but it was all outside the horn). Now that I am a classical improviser, I would argue that it’s time to get back to the future – to reintroduce aural learning, creative learning and activities. Nothing wrong with working on the solos and excerpts, but adding a creative dimension to your musicianship opens up new worlds to you and your students. And creative music may just be the tonic that classical music needs to keep it alive and vibrant into the 21st century.
Time to get off the beaten path and see what’s out there.