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What Beethoven Can Teach Us About Failure


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Recording of Anna Bliss presenting at Twin Cities Product Conf 2019.

Published in: Technology
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What Beethoven Can Teach Us About Failure

  1. 1. What Beethoven Can Teach Us About Failure By Carl Schloesser - (original source:, Public Domain,
  2. 2. Started writing in 1804. Premiered in 1808. • Beethoven was a perfectionist with his music ⎻ He re-wrote parts of an opera after it had premiered • Wrote only nine symphonies • 20,000 people attended his funeral in Vienna in 1827 ⎻ Clearly got a lot right between writing Elegy on the Death of a Poodle and his 9th Symphony So did he spend four years failing before he got those notes right? OR Did he spend four years making sure he had the right four notes? Four Notes. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
  3. 3. …So we reframe it as learning – but do we really? • Musicians spend time playing scales and practicing, hitting bad notes, getting it wrong ⎻ There is not an expectation that you will be good from the start ⎻ Knowing what is not right is part of the training • Beethoven carried a small notebook and wrote in sketches, jotting notes while he walked ⎻ Tiny experiments – only some would become full works for piano or orchestra ⎻ Modern composers can use software to simulate the sound of a full orchestra What can we learn from how musicians learn? Failure. We Don’t Like It. By Julius Schmid -, Public Domain,
  4. 4. There is utility in getting it wrong. • Willingness to not be right doesn’t mean you are intentionally trying to fail – it means you are willing to test an idea or technique • Find small things to try, your own tiny sketches ⎻ What is your product’s equivalent of playing scales? What is your minimum testable product? ⎻ Examples: run an internal alpha, create high fidelity mock-ups using Balsamiq or Invision How do we make this as simple and accessible as practicing scales? Try. Piano Image: By Arto Alanenpää - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Sixth Symphony Image: Ludwig van Beethoven, Public Domain,
  5. 5. Know Where You Are Going. • Agree on a shared vision – it will trump feeling like you failed and takes everyone with you on the journey • Create a pool of fabulous ideas – it increases your chances of finding the right idea ⎻ Use your ideas to test and tweak – figure out what works, what doesn’t – this is your “fail often” bank • Take time to know your available resources • Setbacks are part of the process and you are going to be wrong at least some of the time • Tell your success stories Should this be a symphony or a sonata? Focus on the Goal. 5th Symphony Image: Eroica Image: Ludwig van Beethoven, Public Domain,
  6. 6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart • Wrote 41 symphonies – if you played all of his music end to end it would take over 200 hours • He was almost a factory – whether it was music for a dinner party, a mass, or a bit of opera, he wrote it all George Frideric Handel • Willing to reuse themes and ideas in new ways • Wrote for his key stakeholders first, and a fuller customer base later Florence Beatrice Price • Knew that her audience expected a traditional European sound but also wanted something new • Known in her time and starting to be “rediscovered” Create. Pragmatically. Mozart: By Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736–1819) - [1], Public Domain, Handel: By Balthasar Denner - Uploaded to nl.wikipedia 21 apr 2004 01:13 by nl:Gebruiker:Robbot., Public Domain, Price:
  7. 7. It Doesn’t Need to Be Right the First Time. • Sketch • Practice • Be willing to try • Know you will hit bad notes • Your magnum opus is there – find it Ask yourself, What Would Beethoven Do? Find Your Notes. – public domain
  8. 8. Thank you. @akbliss By Carl Schloesser - (original source:, Public Domain,
  9. 9. Sources • • • • • • • • “Inside the Classics” Series with the Minnesota Orchestra • Schmitt Music’s “Bravo” music curriculum for elementary school classrooms