The lost art of learning to stand “where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could.”
“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,” Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?
That’s precisely what curator and art advocate Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.
Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:
There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.
In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:
Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.
This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Another less famous Edison anecdote paints this in even more vivid detail: When one of his inventions failed, Edison locked himself in his lab with five of his men and declared he would not come out until the puzzle was solved; he spent sixty-four hours working continuously with no sleep, until he conquered the challenge, then slept for thirty hours to recover.)
In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:
The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.
In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:
Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.
When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.
One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:
We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.
There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.
A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:
At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.
Here, again, it’s useful to consider Carol Dweck’s influential work on mindsets, in which she found that students who equated success with a reflection of their natural ability learned much less than those who saw it as a product of their effort; the former group dreaded failure as a tell-tale sign of their insufficiency, while the latter saw in it an invitation to change course, to try harder, to grow.
But while a “near win” may be an invitation to grow, it is anything but comfortable. One of the most easily discernible manifestations of its anguish is found among Olympic medalists. Lewis cites the work of Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, who found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. It is a phenomenon first discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in the 1980s found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty. And yet the “near win” is also the reason why silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around — victory seems possible, yet not as far away as for the bronze medalists, so the “near win” is experienced as a nudge to sharpen focus and try harder rather than a discouragement. Lewis writes:
A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance. (Visualize a great day tomorrow and we see it with granular, practical clarity. But picture what a great day in the future might be like, not tomorrow but fifty years from now, and the image will be hazier.) The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to attain what lies in our sights, but out of reach.
Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.
For one of her illustrative case studies, Lewis turns to the legacy of pioneering polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1911 expedition to the South Pole is considered by many the greatest unfinished journey of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and “the world’s most tragically famous failure” — Scott and his entire crew perished before reaching the end of their quest. A century later, modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders set out to complete Scott’s journey, which would be the longest unsupported polar expedition in human history — 1,800 miles or, as Lewis puts it, “the length of sixty-nine marathons back to back.” She considers what might possess people like Saunders to attempt such seemingly deadly feats:
People driven by a pursuit that puts them on the edges are often not on the periphery, but on the frontier, testing the limits of what it is possible to withstand and discover.
Implicit to testing the limits, however, is acknowledging them — and, more importantly, surrendering to them in a way that gives us more freedom. This notion of surrender — which Alan Watts expounded as he pioneered Eastern philosophy in the West half a century ago — is central to Lewis’s model of fruitful failure. She turns, once more, to Saunders:
Out in the Arctic, he said, “I was aware that I was responsible for my own survival,” but eventually settled into a “wonderful feeling of ‘Well, I can’t think of a better word than surrender,’” as he described the process of nonresistance to wind, temperatures, and the pain that had brought him there.
I wondered for two years after first speaking to Saunders about this idea of surrender. How do you lean into pain when you’re trying to forge ahead in one of the most inhospitable places on our planet? Why is that helpful? … Surrender, we both admitted, might be an imperfect word to describe it. The term is often synonymous with the white-flag retreat of loss in the context of battle. Yet when feelings of failure come with their own form of pain, empowerment through accepting it — surrender — and pivoting out of it can be more powerful than fighting. The kind of surrender that Saunders means is more akin to Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati, to love your fate. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”
Once again, Lewis provides an alternative to a culturally misunderstood word for an important concept. To explain the essence of this kind of surrender, she turns to the martial art of aikido, which derives its power from “strategic nonresistance.” (If you’ve ever engaged with Eastern philosophy or listened to the teachings of Tara Brach, you might be familiar with the oft-cited aphorism “What you resist persists.”) Far from easeful resignation, this concept makes aikido one of the most challenging martial arts to master, precisely because “strategic nonresistance” is the exact opposite of what eons of evolution have optimized our minds and bodies to do — to tense up, snap into fight-or-flight mode, and enlist all of our willful resistance in the basic survival instinct of self-protection. And yet the central principle of aikido, which brings to mind Bruce Lee’s famous advice to “be like water” (though he practiced a different martial art), is a philosophical one rather than a physical one. Lewis explains:
Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. In aikido, an uke, the person who receives an attack from the thrower, or nage, absorbs and transforms the incoming energy through harmony and blending. There is no word for competitor, only for the one who is giving or receiving the energy.
She relates this concept of surrender to our relationship with death:
When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.
(Once again, Alan Watts’s influential ideas on the subject would have been an excellent reference here. John Updike also contemplated the question: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Artist Candy Chang puts it even more succinctly: “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”)
But there’s a concept that illuminates surrender even more brilliantly than death. Lewis points to zero:
Zero is the oddest number. Its value is foundational and yet unstable; it has what seems to be inexplicable properties. It can threaten some — multiply or divide a number by zero and you wipe it out. Or it can act neutrally — add or subtract zero from any number and it remains. For centuries, it has been a limit that most civilizations have preferred not to consider, with the exception of Hindu societies, which embraced it. It is on the threshold, separating positive from negative, all that we want from all that we don’t. Surrender, like zero, doesn’t translate into an appreciable form. It is like the duende of the artist, living on the line in between worlds where intellect, intuition, and force meet, and unendurable beauty is born of enduring travails.
For all of our attempts to describe surrender, discerning its place in our lives feels like trying to engage with that elusive number without which nothing makes sense, and through which all that we thought we knew falls down slack like a rag doll in our lap. And this is the trouble with the rebounding effect of zero: we have to first let ourselves get extremely low to go there.
More than anything, however, the case for surrender stands in stark contrast with the conditioning of our age, an era of endless distractions from discomfort. And yet the very “moronic inferno” Saul Bellow lamented is what makes this capacity for surrender an increasingly valuable psychological commodity. Lewis writes:
In an age where we can skip from idea to idea, with countless distractions to divert us, absconding from painful places is easy. How do we stand in a place where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could? How do we practice the aikido move of surrender? The perception of failure, the acceptance of the low, is often the adhesive.
In another of her illustrative examples, Lewis turns to legendary social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who believed in the power of visual culture a century before Susan Sontag made the cultural case for photography and a century and a half before the age of selfies. Long before science would illuminate the visual bias of our brains, Douglass intuited the power of images:
Frederick Douglass was sure, even in the face of war, that the transportive, emancipatory force of “pictures,” and the expanded, imaginative visions they inspire, was the way to move toward what seemed impossible. An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, has a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. The inward “picture making faculty,” Douglass argued, the human capacity for artful, imaginative thought, is what permits us to see the chasm accurately, our failures — the “picture of life contrasted with the fact of life.” “All that is really peculiar to humanity . . . proceeds from this one faculty or power.” This distinction of “the ideal contrasted with the real” is what made “criticism possible,” that is, it enabled the criticism of slavery, inequity, and injustice of any kind.
It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success—that momentary label affixed to us by others — but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view.
The “key to the great mystery of life and progress” was the ability of men and women to fashion a mental or material picture and let his or her entire world, sentiments, and vision of every other living thing be affected by it. Even the most humble image held in the hand or in the mind was never silent. Like the tones of music, it could speak to the heart in a way that words could not. All of the “Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Photographs and Electrotypes, good and bad, [that] now adorn or disfigure all our dwellings,” Douglass said, could allow for progress through the mental pictures that they conjured. He went on to describe “the whole soul of man,” when “rightly viewed,” as “a sort of picture gallery[,] a grand panorama,” contrasting the sweep of life with the potential for progress in every moment.
What Douglass intuited, Lewis argues, is the notion of “aesthetic force” — that transcendent power of a Rothko painting or the “overview effect” of cosmic awe that astronauts experience when gazing at Earth from space or the transcendence of a life-changing encounter with wild ospreys, those visceral experiences that leave us somehow transformed. Lewis writes:
Our reaction to aesthetic force, more easily than logic, is often how we accept with grace that the ground has shifted beneath our feet.
So powerful is aesthetic force, Lewis argues, that it can alter our behavior both as individuals and as a culture — the iconic Earthrise photograph has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Underpinning aesthetic force is a mechanism similar to that behind the “deliberate incomplete”:
When we’re overcome by aesthetic force, a propulsion comes from the sense that, until that moment, we have been somehow incomplete. It can make us realize that our views and judgments need correction. It can give these moments “elasticity” and “plasticity”…
Lewis dons her art historian hat to tie this back to failure:
The mechanics of how we see and remember when we are moved is one way that we move forward out of near ruin. Douglass was describing, as he saw it, our pictorial process of creating reality.
It is as true of vision as it is of justice — distorted, flat, horizontal worlds become more full when we accept that the limit of vision is the way we see unfolding, infinite depth. Painted and printed images used to be just flat bands of color until the invention of perspectival construction and with it, the vanishing point — the void, nothing, the start of infinite possibility. Moving toward a reality that is just, collectively and for each of us individually, comes from a similar engagement with an inbuilt failure. A fuller vision comes from our ability to recognize the fallibility in our current and past forms of sight.
What we lose if we underestimate the power of an aesthetic act is not solely talent and freedom of expression, but the avenue to see up and out of failures that we didn’t even know we had. Aesthetic force is not merely a reflection of a feeling, luxury, or respite from life. The vision we conjure from the experience can serve as an indispensable way out from intractable paths.
Seeing the uncommon foundations of a rise is not merely a contrarian way of looking at the world. It has, in many cases, been the only way that we have created the one in which we are honored to live.
Indeed, history is strewn with such “uncommon foundations.” There’s Joan Didion, who faced a slew of uncompromising rejections before becoming one of the most celebrated writers of our time, or Herman Melville who Lewis reminds us died a penniless customs agent some seventy years before Moby-Dick would receive critical acclaim as one of the greatest novels of all time. (Melville himself, for all his capacity for the joyful, was all too painfully aware of the tragic in his own life when he lamented, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”)
Lewis’s point, of course, isn’t to bemoan the occasional cruelties of fate and commiserate with its famous victims but to remind us that we choose how we designate and how we relate to our own experience, and out of that choice, especially amidst tribulation, springs our capacity for triumph:
The moment we designate the used or maligned as a state with generative capacity, our reality expands. President John F. Kennedy once mentioned an old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is an orphan until we give it a narrative. Then it is palatable because it comes in the context of story, as stars within a beloved constellation.
Once we reach a certain height we see how a rise often starts on a seemingly outworn foundation. . . .
When we take the long view, we value the arc of a rise not because of what we have achieved at that height, but because of what it tells us about our capacity, due to how improbable, indefinable, and imperceptible the rise remains.
The Rise is a dimensional read in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement it with Daniel Dennett on how to make good mistakes and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Debbie Millman’s Fail Safe.