Embrace the mess

An important lesson in creativity

Keys on a piano.

In May, with most of the country following stay-at-home orders, the School of Management held its first-ever virtual commencement, and Dean Paul Tesluk shared words of inspiration with the Class of 2020. Below is an excerpt from his remarks.


As we are all well aware, this global pandemic has created immense hardship throughout the world. And while it has affected us all, we will not all respond the same. 

To paraphrase the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and how one responds.” 

How will you respond to the challenge of the world we now find ourselves in? 

Before I help you answer that question, I would like to share a story: 

If you are fan of jazz, you are probably familiar with Keith Jarrett, who is perhaps the most accomplished American jazz pianist and composer ever. On one much-anticipated occasion, Jarrett was to play at the Cologne Opera House in Germany—without sheet music or rehearsal, the improvisational style for which he was famous. Then at the high point of his career, he was going to play in front of 1,400 people that evening. As was his normal routine, Jarrett arrived at the concert hall a couple hours before the performance to test the piano and get comfortable with the setup. 

But there was a problem. The opera house had provided a practice piano instead of concert piano, and there was no time to bring in a replacement. To his astonishment, Jarrett found the piano had a harsh, tinny upper register because all the felt had worn away. Some of the keys were sticking, others were out of tune, the pedals didn’t fully work and the small size of the piano couldn’t produce the volume needed to fill the large space. In short, he stepped into a big mess.

Jarret left the concert hall in frustration. To make matters worse, he was suffering from severe back pain due to a very demanding concert and travel schedule. As the daylong pouring rain continued, he sat in his car, in pain and ready to cancel the performance. Meanwhile, Vera Brandes—the concert promoter who had convinced Jarrett to make the long trip to Germany for this special performance—desperately tried to find a replacement piano. After multiple failed attempts to secure a new piano, she went to Jarrett’s car and stood in the rain, begging him not to cancel the concert. Reluctantly, he agreed to go ahead with the performance.

The concert went on and, within moments, it became clear something special was happening. As he played, Jarrett avoided the tinny upper registers of the piano and stuck to the middle tones of the keyboard, giving the piece a soothing, ambient quality. Because the piano was so quiet, he set up rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And to have enough volume to fill the opera house, Jarrett had to stand and pound down on the keys. 

It was an electrifying performance, somehow peaceful and full of energy at the same time. The audience loved it, and to this day, the recording of the Köln concert is the best-selling piano album and solo jazz album in history—quite a remarkable achievement given that the concert might have been canceled or at least gone down as one of Jarrett’s least remarkable performances. 

As Jarrett’s concert shows, remarkable achievements can indeed come from the most challenging circumstances. And with that, I would like to address the question presented by the Rev. Dr. King: “How are you going to respond to the challenges you have inherited?” 

Well, as Jarrett demonstrated, it starts with mindset. Instead of throwing his hands up and quitting, he committed to giving the best performance he could with the tools he had. After poking around on that ragtag piano, experimenting with different combinations of cords and keys, Jarrett leaned into the mess he was handed and used the full range of the piano’s limited musical dimensions to provide a creative and unique performance. You see, mindset is a deliberate and intentional choice. So my first piece of advice to you is to embrace challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning. 

Both Jarrett’s commitment to go forward with the performance and the way he used the full range of the practice piano’s capabilities were only possible because of the confidence he had in his own ability to successfully improvise. You have earned a degree from a leading business school at a top-ranked university. You have the knowledge and tools to succeed. But achieving that success might require a different route and might require your own improvisation to achieve it. As the Dalai Lama said, “With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.” 

Research has shown that the best way for us to help ourselves when we are feeling down is to help others in need. As Jarrett himself later recalled, “I was able to put aside the frustration of the defective piano and I didn’t notice the pain of my aching back once I agreed to go ahead with the concert because of how much it meant to Vera.” We are in a world that needs your talent and ambition more than ever—and you might find that by helping others in need, you will be the ultimate winner.

And just like Jarrett, will you use your talent, ambition and all the tools and resources at your disposal to take this mess that you have inherited—through no fault of your own—and turn it into something creative, beautiful, enduring and lasting? I know you will. You will choose to have the mindset, bring about your self-confidence and help yourself by assisting others to make a lasting and important impact on the world. And that is what we all need now, more than ever.

In addition to remarks from the dean, Bob Swan, BS '83, and alumni around the globe offered words of wisdom for our graduates. View their remarks at bit.ly/ubmgtgrad2020.