The laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular.” ( Edward Gibbon)

Retired center Wayne Gretzky is still referred to as the Great One because he holds the record for the most goals scored and assisted in the history of the National Hockey League. In the frozen North Country his legacy of splitting defenses with spectacular serpentine maneuvers and the individual and team victories that followed him endures as the watermark of excellence on skates or otherwise. What is often overlooked is that Gretzky also ranks near the top of the list for total shots on goal taken. That is attempts to score that did not result in a goal. Gretzky followed a simple formula – the more shots on goal the greater the probability of scoring. We find this same swing and miss approach in peers from other sports like footballer Pelé or baseball’s Henry Aaron both among the most celebrated athletes of their age.

The late Professor Ellis Paul Torrance came to a similar insight from his experimental research on highly creative people. He found that they were more fluent and flexible in their attempts and approaches to manifesting their artistic vision than others. It turns out that our ability to create and the growth associated with the generative process may well be a game of attrition like a goldfish that lays five hundred eggs so that the odds of perpetuating the line in a predatory pool are improved. This approach is exemplified in the pharmaceutical industry that uses high-throughput technologies in the drug discovery process to explore millions of molecular sequences and quickly detect variations.

Additionally widening or varying our approach also increases our chances of success. This is a common tactic used by biotechnology firms that cannot compete on the scope or scale of resources with larger drug makers. These darting progenitors prospect for more subversive therapies that provide higher rates of return by investing in a diverse array of technologies or methodologies in the same industry. These innovation tournaments pit one potential solution against another. They flout convention by accelerating the failure cycle instead of trying to avoid it. By failing early and out of sight the expense and exposure created by these assorted experiments actually limits risk because it purposefully avoids the perfect plan pitfall where a project is fully implemented and the potential for implacable misfortune is much greater. As with all nature the largest and best optimized of the species parish first in periods of great change while the positive deviant and most adaptive prosper in the shift.

Our MacGyver experiments produce more than ingenious answers. They create clever people. We too navigate the wild trials of Odysseus in search of some Ithaca. Heroic artist and scientist alike will attest to the role of second drafts or trial and error in forming their masterpiece. In this way our growth may be as much about our willingness to make more ugly than handsome statues than it is about our intentionality to be great. Our persistence moves us on to the next work where the vision might be realized. This notion of progressing towards completeness through a journey of personal development is embodied in the Hindu concept of samsara where the soul cycles through an endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths until overt or subtle suffering is overcome. In this way the art in question is the artist himself where the subject and object are reunited – art for artist’s sake.

Increasing the number of attempts and the angles of attack bring invigorating energy and momentum to the growth process. This moves us from contemplation to observation where wishes are ratified or rejected by the active forces at work. Aspirations are empty if they do not fill us with the desire to act. We meet the next Elvis or Michael Jordon or JK Rowling at the market everyday but their hopes have not brought them to the arduous task of painful practice and persistence required to prevail. Of course gratitude is essential for there is always an element of luck or blessings or some other definition of good fortune. Few have taken as many shots on goal as polymath Ben Franklin who famously quipped “God helps those who help themselves.” This brings us to a new form of mindfulness. One that reaches out to a world that reaches back every moment and moves us from the power of now to the power of now, damn it!

  • Accelerate the failure cycle

Jeff DeGraff

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