A Cheap Guitar from Your Uncle

This blog post is dedicated to my colleague, Meg.  We’ve been having a wonderful conversation (okay, debate) about the difference between “perfect work” and work that produces a “minimum viable product.” Can you guess which side I’m on?


A lot of my job these days involves strategic planning — making sure that my school is using its resources to move in the right directions.  The hope, in strategic work, is that preparation, thought, and discipline can ensure that an organization prospers while avoiding the vicissitudes of daily life / business.

But the vicissitudes of daily life / business, and our reaction to them, can also lead to important moments in our development — important moments that could be lost if we hedged too close to our strategy.

Here’s a quotation from today’s Writer’s Almanac that describes one such important moment from the history of Blues music.

[Muddy] Waters tried to break through with his Mississippi blues, but he had a hard time playing loud enough for anyone to hear him on his acoustic guitar at the noisy parties and bars where he played. So in 1944, he bought a cheap electric guitar from his uncle, which helped increase his sound level.

It was the first time anyone had played Mississippi blues on an electric guitar, which revolutionized the sound of the blues.

If Muddy Waters would have stuck stubbornly to some kind of acoustic strategy, who knows what would have happened to the Blues.  Instead, he solved his most pressing local problem — his immediate audience couldn’t hear him — with an imperfect solution — a “cheap guitar from his uncle” — that allowed him to go one step further, to play one more show . . . and then another, and another, until, in his words . . .

All of a sudden, I became Muddy Waters, you know? People started speakin’, hollerin’ across streets at me.

Such magic happens “slowly, then all at once” — and sometimes only after grabbing the cheap guitar instead of waiting around for the perfect one.

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