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Miles Davis was more than a great musician. He was a mentor who gave life lessons both on and off the bandstand.

By JPRoche - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35426463

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

Miles Davis was undoubtedly one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. It’s hard to find any list of the best jazz records of all time that doesn’t have his masterpiece “Kind of Blue” in the #1 slot. Or his groundbreaking “Bitches Brew” in the Top 10. And while Davis was well known for his prickly personality, he was also a mentor both on and off the bandstand to the dozens of younger musicians, many of whom went on to stellar careers of their own, who played with him.  

Herbie Hancock, who in his 20s spent five years with the Miles Davis Quintet, tells the story of one night when the band was really cooking. “Right in the middle of Miles’ solo … I played the wrong chord,” Hancock recalls. “Completely wrong. It sounded like a big mistake. … And Miles paused for a second and then he played some notes that made my chord right. He made it ‘correct.’”

What really impressed Hancock was that Davis, who could be a brutal taskmaster, didn’t hear that chord as “wrong.” It was just something that happened and he dealt with it. “That taught me a very big lesson about not only music, but about life,” he recalls.

Obviously, no one wants the embarrassment of making a mistake in front of their boss or client. But being afraid to try something new or unconventional because you’re afraid it might fail can sometimes be a much bigger mistake. Since he was a man with many and strong opinions, Miles had something to say about that too: “If you’re not nervous, then you’re not paying attention.” If he was nervous, it didn’t show because he was always paying attention, which made him fearless in his improvisations.

Mistakes happen every day and you have to accept that. You’re going to make them. Your team is going to make them. When that happens, what went “wrong” is no longer the issue, it’s what you do next that counts. Scores of things we take for granted, from the life-saving (penicillin, pacemakers and x-rays), to the convenient (ink jet printers, microwave ovens and Post-Its) and to the ridiculous (Silly Putty and Slinky) were the result of mistakes inventors made while trying to do something else.

Whenever you make a mistake—you know it’s going to happen and it may already have happened today—rather than beating up yourself (or your team) over it, pause for a second to catch your breath and take ownership of what happened. Then figure out what notes you can play next to make something positive out of that error. It could be the next potato chip. You never know.

I’ll close with one final zen-like piece of advice from master improviser Davis: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

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