The Genius of Being a 'Failure'
On February 13, 1960, Ella Fitzgerald played a show to some 12,000 fans at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin. Earlier that day, she and her band performed in Brussels and, as the story goes, hadn’t slept in nearly 24 hours. Despite their exhaustion, there are some fine moments in this Berlin performance—but it wasn’t her impeccable renditions of Gershwin ballads like “The Man I Love” and “Summertime” that got the live recording inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Nope. What most Ella fans remember and adore about this performance is her wobbly rendition of “Mack the Knife”—you know, the one where she completely forgets the lyrics and ends up having to improvise them:
Oh, what's the next chorus?
To this song, now
This is the one, now
I don't know
But it was a swinging tune
And it's a hit tune
So we tried to do mack the knife
She goes on for a few more stanzas, gives up and then breaks into one of the finest Louis Armstrong impersonations I’ve ever heard.
And the audience erupts.
Hearing this recording sparked a bit of an epiphany, especially when I started to consider the way humans deal with “failures,” “missteps” and “aberrations.” If we took the “Ella Fitzgerald philosophy” to life, aberrations wouldn’t be failures or missteps—they would simply be acts that take us where we never intended to go; acts that ask us to improvise on the fly. Instead of crumbling under imaginary weights when we run out of gas, why not impersonate and laugh?
Perhaps this is worth keeping in mind when we (and our students) have a “Mack-the-Knife” moment in class. Why do we allow ourselves to be consumed by the goal of constantly proving to ourselves—and to our students—that we have all the answers, that we have unwavering patience and brilliance? It’s tiring, isn’t it?
Why squander your energy ruing the bumbled lecture, the activity or assignment that turned out to be a clunker? Why blush at our deficiencies. Ella Fitzgerald didn’t—and she eventually won a Grammy for it.