‘Every mistake is gift’

This quote, attributed to Ryuichi Sakamoto, the composer, singer/songwriter and much else, by Maryanne Hobbs who is primarily a BBC 6 Music DJ but also herself much more, comes as a response to questions about music. She had just played a track of his in which some feedback sounding like a rusty saw keeps intruding into the music and which he left there deliberately because it added something unplanned to the whole.

It’s an intellectually easy argument to accept; random intrusions, non-scripted words, unintended drips and dribbles are the stuff of discovery and, as I’m finding out, can lead to different ways of thinking about images, media, and approaches. Emotionally though it’s a very, very hard idea to accept. In my world, mistakes weren’t gifts, they were someone’s disaster giving rise to litigation, enquiries, strikings off or disciplinary action. People could and did die sometimes because of honest mistakes, and no matter how often we talk about a no-blame culture, blame hovers over the culpable individual like a malevolent angel.

This doesn’t mean mistakes are less of a learning point, it’s just that they’re heavier in their consequences which makes accepting them quite a leap. Although we all know you learn much less from being right, it’s still feels better to be right.

This is my internal battle ground. It’s why getting started was so difficult and why experimentation and research are such tricky areas to process. I have a need to know, and for now I don’t know enough about what’s ‘right’ to know, what has value and what doesn’t. It’s like being in a foreign country with a pocket full of coins but not knowing what value to place on the different items of currency.

I like Sakamoto’s philosophy though; I like that openness to the unexpected and acceptance of random interventions. It resonates with the sense of freedom I’m experiencing by loosening my grip on whatever implement I’m using to make marks, by not holding myself to a ‘mastery’ standard but letting the coping model take precedence.

I remember the mastery v coping models being discussed in the mid to late 20th century with regard to learning efficacy; mastery being the requirement that learners demonstrate a level of learned perfection via instruction, coping having more to do with finding solutions themselves. Shackled to an education system that rewarded being right rather than the exploration of alternative solutions, it was argued that this accounted for the apparent arrogance of many medics whose entire careers depended on delivering a correct response to a Consultant’s sudden probing question. They could never be wrong, to be wrong was shameful. It was parodied beautifully in what was probably a Carry On film when rotund Consultant James Robertson Justice suddenly demanded of a junior doctor on the Grand Round, ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ – a reference to how long bleeding from a wound normally takes to stop – and is told, ‘Half past three, Sir’. Luckily for all of us, medics now are much more able to recognise not only when they don’t know but also how and where to find answers, and if they can, well so can I.


Sakamoto is the composer of the score for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, the 1983 WWII film starring David Bowie and in which he also appears.


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