Writer Sarah Lewis

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A curator and historian, Lewis discusses her provocative text, The Rise, which explores the inestimable value of often ignored ideas.

Sarah Lewis is on the faculty at Yale University's School of Art and previously held positions at London's Tate Modern and MOMA in New York. Her essays on contemporary art have been published in several publications, including the Smithsonian and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and her book, The Rise—a celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit—has sold translation rights in Brazil, Holland, Thailand and South Korea. Lewis received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master's from Oxford and is currently completing her doctorate at Yale. She's served on President Obama's Arts Policy Committee and sits on a variety of boards.


Tavis: So what is it that unites all great endeavors, and how does failure propel people to success? These are just two of the questions answered by author Sarah Lewis in her provocative new tome.

It’s titled “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.” Sarah Lewis serves on President Obama’s arts policy committee. Sarah Lewis, good to have you on this program.

Sarah Lewis: Thank you.

Tavis: Why the fascination with this subject for you? I ask that because we’re all fascinated with the notion of success and failure. But as a scholar, why the fascination for you?

Lewis: Well creativity and mastery is a mystery, but I started to think that we come closer to understanding it when we look at how obstacles can lead to gifts and advantages.

I would oftentimes see back-turned paintings in artists’ studios and realize that they weren’t going to ever burn those paintings, but they weren’t going to show them to me either.

So I started to see that these missteps can actually be important for iconic work, and I wanted to see if this was true in all of life. So I just spent a lot of time, really 15 years, researching, looking at the life stories of various different individuals, from explorers, Nobel prize winners, to artists, to see if this was a common thread, and it certainly was.

Tavis: So what is the – there’s a whole book, of course, about this, hence the text. But what is the through-line that you discovered?

Lewis: Yeah. Well, I discovered that the very things people often want to avoid – failures, setbacks – are actually the things that some iconic individuals found were the key advantages through which they found terrain they never would have found any other way.

Tavis: I think anybody who’s being honest with you will tell you, if they’re being honest, that they’ve learned more from their failures than they ever learned from their successes.

Lewis: Absolutely.

Tavis: So I think if most persons who have been successful are willing to admit that, take me a little bit deeper as to what you learned about how they value that process or that reality, that truth, and how they use that truth to propel them. Does that make sense?

Lewis: Absolutely. There are a number of ways we could talk about this. I think maybe my favorite examples are those masters who create iconic works that they themselves think are actually near wins.

That gives them a kind of propulsion to go forward. So you think about Paul Cezanne. He thought his works were so incomplete that he didn’t sign 90 percent of them. He would set them aside and think oh, I’ll go back to them and make them better.

William Faulkner publishes “The Sound and the Fury” and that work goes on to become acclaimed, but he himself doesn’t think that it meets his goal, so he tries to rewrite it five different times, and then publishes that as an appendix.

It’s the wisdom that Duke Wellington understood, who said that his favorite song was always his next one, always the one he had yet to complete. So what I think of in this book is that mastery as I see it is actually not about excellence, it’s really this ever-onward almost, this sense of a deliberate incomplete.

It gives us a sense that there’s more to do. It often means, though, that people can see their works as failures, whereas the world sees it as success. That’s part of the riddle of human endeavor.

Tavis: That’s a fascinating phrase. I’m going to ask you to unpack it for me a bit more. I think I get it. When you say “deliberate incomplete,” tell me more.

Lewis: The deliberate incomplete. So I wonder sometimes how people manufacture a sense of propulsion for themselves. Athletic examples are probably the most vivid here.

Bill Belichick, famous coach, often gives his players who might have an undefeated season in football something to strive for. He makes some kind of eat humble pie.

That’s the way Tom Brady describes it. There are a lot of other athletic examples where people give themselves something to reach for, even if they’ve met their goal. The reason this is so important is that success can make us complacent.

You get a gold and it feels like there’s nothing left to go for. It’s why Thomas Gilovich at Cornell did this great study looking at the propulsion that comes after someone’s received a silver medal versus, say, a bronze.

Even though bronze medalists have more to stand to improve, they’re actually typically happier with their success, because at least they didn’t get fourth place and not medal.

But silver medalists feel that they’ve kind of come so close that they’re more focused on follow-up competitions. So there is the incomplete that life gives you, but there are these kind of manufactured incompletes that you can create.

Tavis: Let me press you on that just a little bit, only because I want to pull something else out of you that I know is in there and in this text. I love athletics and love sports as much as anybody.

It’s obviously a huge American pastime. I love sports in part because, as somebody – I’m paraphrasing here – they tell us of and they inspire us with man’s accomplishments.

So you watch Tiger do it or Michael Jordan do it or Tom Brady do it or whoever, and it makes you want to, it makes you believe and feel that in your own life, whatever you’re up against, if they did it against all the odds, I can do it as well.

But here’s the rub for me though. These athletes, Belichick notwithstanding, these athletes do have a motivation. It’s called a multimillion-dollar contract.

So when that contract particularly is about to end and you’re headed towards free agency, you really need to step your game up because you want to get another multimillion-dollar contract.

I’m trying to get a sense of how we take lessons from them, as I think about it now, when for the rest of us there aren’t million-dollar contracts on the line. Yet we have to, to your point, find something that propels us, find that propulsion to keep us challenging ourselves into doing better day by day.

Lewis: Well to be frank, I hadn’t even thought about the idea of contracts as the motivating force, because what I’m more interested in, and this gets us to the distinction between success and mastery –

Tavis: Oh, there you go, okay.

Lewis: – is that success is really about what the world thinks about you. You hit a certain mark and then the world says that you’ve kind of become X, Y, or Z, a sort of standard-bearer.

But mastery is about something quite different, I think. It’s this internal sense of a gap between where it is that you are and where you want to go. So everyone that I profile in the book, whether they’re an Arctic explorer or, as I mentioned, Nobel Prize winners, they’re really dealing with that internal landscape.

The desire to close the gap, the intrinsic value that comes from that is also what’s propelling them. I didn’t speak to anyone who really was motivated by the external approval or the contract that they had that they were fearful that they would lose.

Many of the athletic examples are that of amateurs in the book. Julie Moss is responsible for the popularization of the Iron Man competition because of the most spectacular near-win that we have really ever seen.

She was in college trying to use her own body to gather data for her college major, and entered on a lark. Ended up almost winning this Iron Man, collapsed, ultimately, because she hadn’t trained properly, and when the closest person ran by her and came into first place, she found herself just propelled by this desire, this internal desire – no contract; she’s doing it as an amateur – to really best herself.

At that point it was clear she wasn’t going to win. But what ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” describes her doing is tripoding herself up after she starfished on the ground.

She was that sort of splayed out, and finds a way to just regain control of her bodily movements to just cross that finish line for herself.

So for me what’s so important about this propulsion is that it might not help us to, say, win a contract to do other things, but it helps us outdo ourselves.

Tavis: That’s a beautiful answer and a response, and it raises two questions for me. One, whether or not we really ought to do away with the term “success,” and just focus on –

Lewis: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: – what you call “mastery.”

Lewis: Right.

Tavis: I talk all the time about the distinction between – you talk about the difference between success and mastery, there’s also a distinction between success and greatness.

Lewis: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: We all want to be successful but, pardon my English, ain’t nobody trying to be great. It’s just I want to be successful. I want to do this, I want to do that. So there’s a distinction between those two things.

Lewis: Yeah.

Tavis: So maybe we ought to just get rid of the word success and focus on mastery, number one; I want your thoughts on that. Secondly, it seems to me that if it’s always about, and I concur here, but if it’s always about besting ourselves – I’m going to contradict myself now – it’s almost like we never, ever self-master anyway.

Lewis: That’s right. I’ll say something to your second question first and then go back. I think that masters aren’t experts because they take a subject to an end. I think they’re masters because they know that there isn’t one.

Tavis: I get that. Okay, I take that.

Lewis: You know?

I would love for us to get rid of the idea of success. I’m not sure that there is – there’s value in aiming for a goal, but the idea of success has built into it caring a great deal about what others think of you.

I think there can be some damage in that. I think there’s so little that’s vocational about American culture anymore that we don’t often use the word mastery. So we forget what it means.

When I went to watch these varsity archers up at Columbia, I was so struck by this endurance that they had to go through, to see themselves as a woman, and it’s actually all women on this varsity team, who could hit a nine but could also hit a 10; who hit a seven but could also hit a nine, and do that for three hours.

This kind of doggedness and obscurity because it’s archery. I thought to myself, this is such an ancient relic of endeavor, and it’s really the pursuit of mastery. Because success is hitting that 10-ring once, but mastery is being able to do it again and again, and know that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again.

So I think we’d be better served in all of our endeavor if we aimed for that kind of mastery.

Tavis: Let me close our conversation by asking you this. Since you are obviously a scholar, what is it that you most want to get through to your students, particularly the young ones, if you were teaching a freshman seminar? What are you trying to get these freshmen to understand early on in their life’s journey from the work you’ve done, the research you’ve done?

Lewis: I would hope that we could all cultivate a kind of fearlessness. When we understand that there are advantages that come from all sorts of circumstances, and that some of our most – you used the word greatness earlier – a kind of greatness that we herald comes often from the most uncommon foundations.

That’s what I hope that we can celebrate. It’s a way to look at the capacity of the human spirit, and to see how strong and resilient it’s always been. That’s what I hope my students gain from it, but that’s really what I also gain from it as I wrote the book. I became someone I didn’t think that I could be through understanding these stories.

Tavis: The book is called “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure,” and I love that, “The Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery,” written by Sarah Lewis. Sarah, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the text.

Lewis: Thank you so much.

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Last modified: April 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm