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Ray Bradbury on Failure, Why We Hate Work, and the Importance of Love in Creative Endeavors

How working for the wrong motives poisons our creativity and warps our ideas of success and failure.

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play,” the French writer Chateaubriand is credited with saying. “He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” Few contemporary creators embody this more wholeheartedly than Ray Bradbury — beloved writer, a man of admirable routine, tireless advocate of space exploration and public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy, champion of intuition over the intellect.

From Zen in the Art of Writing (public library) — one of my favorite books on writing, which also gave us Bradbury on how list-making can boost your creativity — comes some timeless wisdom on work, motivation, and creating from a place of love.

A century after Swami Vivekananda’s poignant meditation on the secret of meaningful work, Bradbury considers why we hate work, as a culture and as individuals:

Why is it that in a society with a Puritan heritage we have such completely ambivalent feelings about Work? We feel guilty, do we not, if not busy? But we feel somewhat soiled, on the other hand, if we sweat overmuch?

I can only suggest that we often indulge in made work, in false business, to keep from being bored. Or worse still we conceive the idea of working for money. The money becomes the object, the target, the end-all and be-all. Thus work, being important only as a means to that end, degenerates into boredom. Can we wonder then that we hate it so?

[…]

Nothing could be further from true creativity.

Like Tolstoy, who some decades earlier admonished against writing for money and fame, and like Michael Lewis, who some decades later advised aspiring writers to find any motive but money, Bradbury argues that writing for either commercial rewards or critical acclaim is “a form of lying.”

This warping of motive can also deform our definitions of success and failure. Echoing Leonard Cohen’s wisdom on why you should never quit before you know what it is you’re quitting, Bradbury writes:

We should not look down on work nor look down on [our early works] as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.

(Nearly twenty years later, Oprah would mirror this closely and counsel the graduating class at Harvard that “there is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”)

A lifelong advocate of doing what you love, Bradbury ends with a beautiful disclaimer for the cynical:

Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for fifty years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is LOVE.

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a spectacular read. Complement it with some thoughts on how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit more notable wisdom on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Zadie Smith’s ten rules, David Ogilvy’s no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings, and Ernest Hemingway’s advice to aspiring writers.

BP

Pixar Cofounder Ed Catmull on Failure and Why Fostering a Fearless Culture Is the Key to Groundbreaking Creative Work

Why the greatest enemy of creative success is the attempt to fortify against failure.

“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman urged in his commencement-address-turned-manifesto-for-the-creative life. “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” philosopher Daniel Dennett asserted in his magnificent meditation on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes. And yet most of us, being human and thus fallible yet proud, go to excruciating lengths to avoid making mistakes, then once we inevitably do, we take great pains to hide them from ourselves and the world. But this, argues Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull with the help of journalist Amy Wallace in an especially enthralling chapter of the altogether excellent Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (public library), is a grave mistake itself — not only from an abstract moral standpoint, but also as a practical strategy for cultivating a strong creative culture in a company and an entrepreneurial spirit within ourselves as individuals.

What makes Catmull, who created Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter and is now president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, particularly compelling is his yin-yang balance of seeming opposites — he is incredibly intelligent in a rationally-driven way yet sensitive to the poetic, introspective yet articulate, has a Ph.D. in computer science but is also the recipient of five Academy Awards for his animation work. This crusade to uncouple fear and failure is thus delivered not with the detached and vacant preachiness of self-help books and lifestyle manuals but with the sensitive sagacity of someone who has been, and continues to be, on the front lines of truly pioneering creative work.

Ed Catmull (Photograph by Deborah Coleman, Pixar)

Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground. Catmull writes:

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Artwork from ‘The Ancient Book of Myth and War,’ a side project by four Pixar animators. Click image for details.

Most people, Catmull argues, would go to any length to avoid failure — but not Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, known around the studio for his frequent counsel to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” Catmull quotes Stanton, who sees failure the way one ought to see learning to ride a bike — an endeavor practically impossible to master without falling and stumbling first:

“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

And yet many people, including within Pixar, often misinterpret the point. Echoing Debbie Millman’s assertion that “if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks,” Catmull writes:

[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.

Color script for ‘The Incredibles’ from ‘The Art of Pixar.’ Click image for details.

While fortifying against failure and avoiding mistakes may seem like admirable goals, Catmull argues that they are ultimately misguided. He cites the example of the Golden Fleece Awards, which in 1975 began spotlighting government-funded projects that were epic wastes of money. While such scrutiny might have its place and no doubt comes from a place of seeking betterment, Catmull argues that “failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning” — the awards had a chilling effect, rendering researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they began taking fewer risks and innovating less. (If you’ve read Stuart Firestein’s excellent book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, you’d nod wistfully upon recognizing that this flawed ethos is the fundamental premise of science funding today, where researchers are routinely being discouraged from pursuing “curiosity-driven” experimentation and are being awarded grants for safe, “hypothesis-driven” research.)

Catmull elegantly distills the result:

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

For people and companies seeking to do original, innovative work, this is clearly a losing proposition. Catmull offers an antidote:

If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them… We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Creating a fearless culture enables people to explore new areas and pursue ideas with much less hesitation and trepidation, “identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.” It also fosters a greater appreciation of decisiveness, liberating us from the constant preemptive questioning of whether the path we’re about to head down is the right one. That way, Catmull argues with an inadvertent wink to Steve Jobs’s famous assertion that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” also allows people to see what they couldn’t possibly see when starting out. Catmull captures the creativity-stifling effect of overplanning:

If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.

Color script for ‘Up’ from ‘The Art of Pixar.’ Click image for details.

With a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s exquisite definition of leadership, Catmull concludes:

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

[…]

Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason — our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

In the remainder of Creativity, Inc., Catmull goes on to explore the art of grappling with change and randomness, the role of honesty in innovation, and more, using Pixar’s own becoming as a springboard for broader insights on the nature and secrets of creative success. Pair it with Sarah Lewis’s indispensable exploration of creativity and the gift of failure.

BP

Agnes Martin on Art, Happiness, Pride, and Failure: A Rare Vintage Interview with the Reclusive Artist

“We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.”

“Her art has the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer,” a New York critic once remarked of legendary abstract-expressionist painter and reconstructionist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004), as known for the transcendent power of her signature minimalist paintings as she is for being an incredibly reclusive, reticent, and media-shy artist, yet remarkably eloquent on the rare occasions she gave an interview, at once poetic and philosophical. Arguably the best of those was conducted by the prominent music, dance and art critic John Gruen in 1976, when Martin was sixty-four, and is found in Gruen’s The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) — an altogether magnificent out-of-print volume fifteen years in the making, featuring conversations with such creative legends as Saul Steinberg, Francis Bacon, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Agnes Martin

Gruen prefaces the conversation with a backdrop of what it’s like to be in Martin’s singular presence:

To meet Agnes Martin in person is to be in the presence of an austere and primitive sensibility — a presence that yields a slight sense of apprehension. Her appearance recalls photographs of Gertrude Stein at her most reserved and diffident.

Once they engaged in conversation, Gruen found her to be an artist who “rarely answered direct questions, but spoke in oracle fashion on matters that seemed applicable to the life of the artist” — all the while “nervously twisting and retwisting a white paper napkin.” Indeed, Martin’s meditation on the spirit of art exudes extraordinary timelessness and insight:

Toward freedom is the direction that the artist takes. Art work comes straight through a free mind — an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better.

Martin, who was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, echoes Alan Watts’s admonition about the ego and continues:

You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy. It’s pride and fear that covers the mind. Pride blinds you. It destroys everything on the way in. Pride is completely destructive. It never leaves anything untouched. First it takes one way … telling you that you’re all right … boosting up your ego, making all kinds of excuses for you… It takes a long time for us to turn against pride and get rid of it entirely. And, of course, with every little downfall of pride, we feel a tremendous step up in freedom and in joy. Of course, most people don’t really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do, because as soon as they’re alone and solitary, they feel fear. Most people don’t believe they have pride and fear, because they’ve been conditioned on pride and fear. But all of us have it. If we don’t think we have it, then that’s a deceit of pride. Pride practices all kinds of deceits. It’s very, very tricky. To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process.

Martin revisits the notion of solitude as the cleansing ground of the mind when she considers what separates artists from other people:

If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. … When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own.

Possession of one’s own mind, Martin argues, is the heart of the creative spirit, so she rebels against the notion of influence:

I don’t believe in influence. I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, then you’re no longer an artist. And if you move from somebody else’s position, you simply cannot know the next step. I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.

In a testament to the power of grit and repeated failure as the path to creative success, Martin reflects on her own painting process with an insight that applies to just about any field of creative endeavor:

You’re permanently derailed. It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.

[…]

For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything — nothing. But you have to keep going, despite all kinds of disappointments.

When Gruen inquiries about how Martin spends her days, she reveals herself to be an outlier on the spectrum of famous creators’ sleep habits and contributes to the eccentric daily routines of artists:

I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down is a long, long way from just knowing what you’re going to do. Because the image comes into your mind after what it is. The image comes only to help you to know what it is. You’re really feeling what your real response is. And so, if you put down this image, you know it’s going to remind other people of the same experience.

First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence. Then, if I can keep from being distracted, I will have an image to paint.

It is Martin’s absolute conviction in creating out of happiness and with joy — a culturally necessary antidote to the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, and a conviction shared by other such heartening creators as Ray Bradbury, Alice Walker, and Anna Quindlen — that leads her to share her curious conspiracy theory about Mark Rothko’s suicide, which she considers incompatible with the exuberant transcendence of his art:

Mark Rothko’s painting is pure devotion to reality. That’s what it is! I wish you could publish that I don’t believe for a minute that Rothko committed suicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was murdered, obviously… by the people who have profited or have tried to profit. Why, Rothko might have been the happiest man in this world, because his devotion was without mark or stain. He just poured it out, right from his heels!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vision for her own most iconic paintings — her ethereal geometric line-grids — sprang out of a similar “pure devotion to reality,” right out of her own heels, as it were. She recounts, in near-synesthetic terms:

One time, I was coming out of the mountains, and having painted the mountains, I came out on this plain, and I thought, “Ah! What a relief!” (This was just outside of Tulsa.) I thought, “This is for me!” The expansiveness of it. I sort of surrendered. This plain … it was just like a straight line. It was a horizontal line. And I thought there wasn’t a line that affected me like a horizontal line. Then, I found that the more I drew that line, the happier I got. First I thought it was like the sea … then, I thought it was like singing! Well, I just went to town on this horizontal line.

She adds an admonition to those who interpret — and thus misinterpret — her work to be about structure rather than about this underlying feeling of expansive happiness:

I’ve been doing those grids for years, but I never thought “Structure.” Structure is not the process of composition. Why, even musical compositions, which are very formally structured, are not about structure. Because the musical composer listens all the time. He doesn’t think about structure. So you must say that my work is not about structure.

Martin returns to the essential question of what defines the artist:

We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.

[…]

The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!

Complement with this rare 1997 video interview with Martin, then treat yourself to The Artist Observed, which is an absolute treasure, should you be so lucky to find a surviving used copy.

BP

Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Crucial Difference Between Success and Mastery

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.

Female archers, lantern slide, c. 1920. (Public domain via Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives.)

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.

Thomas Edison

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.

Herbert Ponting, ‘Grotto in an iceberg,’ Antarctica, 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.)

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.

Frederick Douglass

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.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968

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.

Illustration by Matt Kish from ‘Moby-Dick in Pictures.’ Click image for details.

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.

BP

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