Monday, April 28, 2014

Monday Muse: Sarah Lewis's 'The Rise'

. . . It is the creative process—what drives invention, discovery, 
and culture—that reminds us of how to nimbly convert so-called
failure into an irreplaceable advantage.
~ Sarah Lewis in The Rise

Sarah Lewis, a self-confessed "contrarian", calls her well-written book The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon and Schuster, 2014) "the biography of an idea". That idea is that setbacks are hugely important to our enduring capacity "to create something so iconic out of what seems like nothing." Failure, it must be stated, is not the opposite of success, and Lewis aims to explain why.

In exploring what it takes to uncover "the possibilities of our limitations" and "convert the excruciating into an advantage" that facilitates endeavor, Lewis turns to others' stories,  offering us an insightful look at the lives and creative initiatives — what Lewis calls "improbable rises" — of such disparate figures as African-American social reformer and leader Frederick Douglass and polar explorer Ben Saunders, painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse and writer J.K. Rowling, choreographer Paul Taylor and Nobel-winning physicist Andre Geim, among others. Lewis's fascinating thesis is that the remarkable discoveries, inventions, innovations, and creative efforts of these and other individuals throughout human history are "not achievements" [my emphasis] but the result of "corrections after failed attempts": 

. . . Brilliant inventions and human feats that have come from labor—
an endeavor that offers the world a gift from the maker's soul—
involve a path aided by the possibility of setbacks
 and the inestimable gains that experience can provide. . . ." (p. 11)

Supporting her thesis, Lewis identifies four characteristics of people most likely to "rise": "the power of surrender, the propulsion of the "near win", the critical role of play in achieving innovation, and the importance of grit and the creative process". (p. 11) That third factor, play, cannot be over-emphasized.

Following are some of the many quotes I marked while reading The Rise that speak to Lewis's well-researched and annotated examination of what it means to have and use "the gift" of failure — failure being a word, Lewis  cautions, that is "imperfect" because "[o]nce we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer." (p.11)

On Mastery:

"All those who do more than compete, who strive for mastery, play on a field that exists largely within." (p. 25)

"Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn't one. . . ." (p. 33)

On Risk-taking:

"We make discoveries, breakthroughs, and inventions in part because we are free enough to take risks, and fail if necessary. Private spaces are often where we extract the gains from attempts and misses." (p. 49)

On Vision, Drive, and Endurance:

"Managing the gap between vision and work, which often looks to others like being swallowed by failure, is a lifelong process." (p. 57)

"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 is possible to withstand and discover." (p. 64)

On Surrender to Failure:

" . . . To convert our own energy and operate at full force, often we must first surrender." (p. 70)

". . . [W]hen 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. . . . " (p. 71)

"When you surrender enough, you feel the heft of a situation or an environment and can better judge how to move with it." (p. 73)

". . . To transform from failure, you first have to let yourself feel really badly about it." (p. 73)

Two noteworthy chapters in Lewis's book are "The Deliberate Amateur" and "The Grit of the Arts"; either offers plenty for discussion. Drawing on numerous studies, Lewis is especially articulate about the role of play in the creative process, as well as "grit" — that is, showing up over and over and over.

On the Value of Play:

". . . In the face of entrenched failure, there are limits to reason's ability to offer us a way out. Play helps us to see things anew. . . ." (p. 94)

". . . Playfulness lets us withstand enormous uncertainty. . . " (p. 153)

". . . When we suppress play, danger is often close at hand. . . [O]ur earliest memories connected to joy and play alter the trajectories of our lives as adults." (p. 157)

". . . [D]irected teaching is important, but learning that comes from play and spontaneous discovery is critical. Endurance is best sustained through periodic play." (p. 158)

"'Innovation is an outcome. Play is a state of mind. Innovation is often what we get when we play', [Ivy] Ross believes." (p. 159) Ivy Ross is chief marketing officer at

"To play is a way of climbing and finding hidden mines without serious strain. Those who manage to suspend their disbelief see the threshold—horizontal and often dry—and enter." (p. 165)

On 'Grit' or Our Response to Failure:

". . . Grit is connected to how we respond to so-called failure, about whether we see it as a comment on our identity or merely as information that may help us improve." (p. 169)

"Grit is a portable skill that moves across seemingly varied interests. Grit can be expressed in your chosen pursuit and appear in multiple domains over time. . . ." (p. 179)

"To teach students about grit, . . . [they have to] understand that there is no linear path." (p. 183)

"If we fail to cultivate grit, it is also because we often grant little importance to the practice of making and the process that it can teach us throughout our lives." (p. 192)

Overall, I find Lewis to be a thoughtful and open-minded writer who is not concerned to prescribe what we must do or to formulate a set of lessons. Her perspective is that no matter how dubious our vision or pursuit may seem, each of us has within the power to "see up and out of failures", and that what we derive from such experiences in fact points us to "an indispensable way out from intractable paths." When we go down, she strongly intimates, we indeed have the capacity to rise stronger.

Here is Lewis in an introductory trailer for The Rise, which I include in my list of recommended books:

Also see this second trailer.

Lewis also has presented at TED. Watch her TEDTalk, "Embrace the Near Win" (2014).

A resident of New York City, Lewis also is a curator and writer on art. She will receive a doctorate this year from Yale University.

Sarah Lewis on FaceBook and Twitter

Sarah Lewis Blog

1 comment:

Maureen said...

A couple of additional notes:

Some readers express disappointment with "The Rise", and I think a case might be made that the all-encompassing subtitle does not live up to its promise and that Lewis is timid in fully embracing the full value of her premise, which remains somewhat abstract. How do we define "the rise" through failure? How do we illustrate its projectory? Where does the premise break down? Still, the idea that failure has a particular role in creativity is fascinating and Lewis's book is an opener to a discussion of that role.