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How the failure could lead us to success?

by - 01 May

"Success is hitting that ten ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can't do it again and again". Studying the life of some of the greatest inventors, artists, writers and enterpreneurs,  the American author, curator and art historian Sarah Lewis found out that the failure is an important part of big achievements. Many of our most iconic, creative endeavors - from Nobel Prize winning discoveries to entrepreneurial inventions and works in the arts, are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. In her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery she explores the role of the almost-failure, the near win, in our own lives, and the difference between success and mastery.
Lewis has appeared on Oprah’s Power List, served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee. A faculty member at Yale’s School of Art, she has held positions at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I talked to Sarah about the gift of failure, the pursuit of mastery, the difference between success and mastery, and the importance of surrendering or non-resistance to failure: It could be more empowering to accept  it than to try to fight it.
Why do you see the failure as a gift?
When we look closely at the full arc of people’s lives, we find that the gift of failure is all around—from Nobel Prize-winning discoveries to entrepreneurial invention, classic works of literature, dance and visual arts and on and on! To offer just a few examples: Thomas Edison famously told his assistant, incredulous at the inventors perseverance through jillions of aborted attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that wont’ work.” Playwright Tennessee Williams was motivated by “apparent failure.” He said, “it sends me back to my typewriter that very night, before the reviews are out. I am more compelled to get back to work than if I had a success.” Duke Ellington would say, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”
In The Rise, I write at length about stories where we see the gift of failure—in invention, in the arts, in entrepreneurship and more. However, this common phenomenon is not often discussed phenomenon because once we start to use failure, we tend to call the experience something else—a learning experience, a trial—rarely that word failure. In fact, in my book, I use the word failure very rarely.

What’s the difference between success and mastery? 
Success is a moment in time. It is a label that the world confers on you for having hit a benchmark. Success is hitting a mark, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again. Mastery is looking at endeavor as a lifelong journey. Mastery. Unlike success, mastery is about being willing to sacrifice to do what is required for your craft, and not just for the sake of crafting your career. Mastery requires productively engaging with so-called failure. This means that, to the world, someone’s work can look like a success. Yet internally, the creator, the master will know they still have much more to do. This launches them on an extending path. Consider William Faulkner. He published The Sound and the Fury and it goes on to achieve great acclaim it is a success, but to Faulkner, it felt like a near win. So what did he do? He re-wrote sections of the novel and published it 16 years later as an appendix to the novel’s later editions. He was an internal quest to close a gap that only he could see.
Part of the reason that mastery becomes a journey is because masters are trying to bridge this gap between sight and vision—a constant endeavor, and often an internal one.

How a failure could be transformed into mastery? 
There are tons of ways—my book could have had ten volumes or more about this topic. Failure is transformed into mastery when we start to see our lives as a journey, not as an event.

What’s your favorite example for such a journey? 
There are too many good examples for me to have a favorite! I spend so much time trying to understand these stories, these lives, that I could never pick just one. However, a life story that I consider exemplary of this journey is that of telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. I many way, he was the first tech entrepreneur, if you will. Yet Morse actually spent 26 years first failing to achieve the renown he sought as a painter. He wanted to be as great as Raphael or Michelangelo. However, by his early forties, he decided to put down his brush since he couldn’t support himself or his family financially with his chosen pursuit. Instead, he used the stretcher bars of a discarded painting canvas as one of the materials to invent the telegraph. He took what he learned in his 26-year pursuit to persevere and secure the patent for the telegraph.
Why do we need to embrace imperfection and near-win? 
Well, The Rise book is no self-help book. I’m not advocating that one must do one thing or another. It is an atlas of heavily researched stories about creativity and mastery. Yet what my work has shown me is that many pioneers, inventors, artists, and athletes have found propulsion from experiencing a near win. The life of painter Paul Cézanne is one of many examples of this phenomenon that I mention. He signed only 10% of his paintings; he felt that so many of his works fell short of his goal. He often left works aside with the intention of picking them back up again. Or consider poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz who said that after every book of his (successful) poetry came out, he said, “There is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling.” The near win.
The frustration we feel when we coming close but do not quite achieve our goal that can thrust us into unprecedented terrain. It helps us shift our view of the landscape. A near win can help us focus on what, the next time, we plan to do to meet our mark.

Why the concept of surrender is so important? 
When we resist a difficult circumstance, when we refuse to face it and learn from it, we make the situation more painful. It’s similar to a principle I learned from a friend who focuses on pain management—when you tense against chronic pain, you actually increase your own discomfort.
The idea of surrender helps us understand how to move through problems organically, easily. Surrender—being willing not give up, but give over and learn from the circumstance—is an age-old wisdom. Shakespeare put this insight into Edgar’s lines in King Lear: “… the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”
What was your motivation for writing the book? 
There are so many people whose lives we think we know. In fact, we have no idea of what truly gave them fortitude and strength. What I found when I looked at the lives of some incredible individuals is that they derived advantages from experiences that some might never want. One of these experiences is so-called failure.
I wanted to understand it more because my sense of it from curating and teaching is that the path towards groundbreaking, creative human endeavor is counter-intuitive. Everyone is creative in his or her life, I believe. They’re creating not just side projects, but we are creating our own path all the time. I wanted to understand more about the capacity of the human spirit. How is it that we bridge that gap between where we are and where we want to go? I wanted to understand more about this universal quest.

What did you learn during the process of writing?
I wrote this book in order to become the kind of writer who could write this book. I knew it was going to be immensely difficult, but also incredibly inspiring. This book forced me to stretch myself in ways I would not have thought possible in order to write this book. That growth was the greatest gift.

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