How a failure was known as one of the greatest minds in history

There is this strange little man who loved music. He was way too dramatic (and airheaded) to be a conductor.

Let's talk about just some of the things wrong with him. When the musical score was soft, he'd hide and crouch so low that the members of the orchestra had trouble seeing him. When he wanted the orchestra to get loud, he'd leap into the air and yell at the top of his lungs like a banshee!

He was so uncoordinated that during one piano concerto (during which he played), he knocked the candles off the piano. At another, he knocked over a poor little choirboy.

Worst of all, sometimes he lost count! (Conductors must never lose count.) One time, he leaped high into the air to bring the orchestra in on a loud entrance, however nothing happened. He'd lost count again and didn't “Look before he leaped!” He leaped too soon!

In addition to his dramatic tendencies (which distracted terribly from the music), his lack of coordination, danger to choirboys, and inability to count, he started going deaf.

When this fact became known, the musicians began to ignore him and watch the first violinist. This had poor results and after much trepidation, the musicians finally begged him to go home and give up his conducting career.

So, Ludwig van Beethoven stopped conducting but continued writing music.

Failure at one thing, success at another
I have just described a person who many would call a failure. But Ludwig van Beethoven, although a failure at conducting, was the most successful COMPOSER of all time. The Austrian-born British musician and writer Hans Keller pronounced Beethoven “humanity's greatest mind altogether”.

However, Beethoven learned, as we must, that no man (or woman) is good at everything.

We must learn to explore and use our talents. We must do what we're good at and enjoy. We must also know that when we “fail” that it does not mean giving up what we love to do.

“Failure” does not mean anything except that we may have found one thing that we do not do well.

What if Beethoven got angry, stormed out, and quit music altogether? We wouldn't have Beethoven's fifth and a plethora of sonatas, concertos, and his only opera.

Instead, when he went almost totally deaf, he would play the piano with his head laying on the instrument so that some of the intonation could penetrate his dulled sense of hearing.

He did not quit his love of music when he failed at conducting. He did not quit his love of music when he went deaf. He pursued his passion. He learned from his failings.

And he learned that no one is a genuis at everything!

Wise lessons for us all! Wise lessons as we dole out end of the year grades.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Karyn Romeis May 12, 2006 - 9:10 am

What an encouraging story. Isn’t it amazing, though, how we set up standards for ourselves: this is success – anything else is failure. And the criteria we use often fit us badly as someone else’s dentures, because (just like someone else’s dentures) they were made to someone else’s measure.

My husband and I are both very sporty people, fairly strong academically, and we both love to read. Our elder son has inherited all those characteristics. He just came second in the javelin at the district athletics championships, his exam results are always in the top set and he is seldom without a book. He has beautiful broad shoulders and a muscular physique.

Our younger son sees himself as an abject failure. Why? Because he finds reading boring and he’s not much cop at sport. Both his reading and sporting ability are above average within his class at school, but that’s not good enough. He must measure up to the standards set by the rest of us. No amount of telling him that he is unique, special, precious, loved, handsome will persuade him otherwise. His academic results are very good – in the top set, but not exceptional, so he sees himself as a failure there, too.

But there’s something else. He’s a gifted little musician. He plays the guitar and is working on a classical piece at the moment. He can hear a song in anything, including the beeping of the oven timer. He has the ability to start off singing one song and to morph it into another without even thinking about it. I am a singer myself, and I am astounded at this gift for creating medleys out of songs I would never even have thought to put together.

But point this out to him and he says dismissively, “Yeah, but that’s easy”. He cannot see that it is easy to him, but none of the rest of us can do it.

Because his skill set doesn’t fit in with the rest of the family’s, he sees himself as a failure.

Cal Teacher Blogger May 13, 2006 - 4:53 am

I work with kids all day long that have failed miserably in other subjects. Miraculously they find themselves in something they love and experience amazing success. Sometimes that success spills over into other areas of their lives. It can be life changing. In fact, sometimes success in one arena can mean improvement in another arena where they have failed previously. I believe that we are all great at something. The key is to discover our greatness.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere