“Failure [is] the gap between where we are and where we want to go.” A Conversation with Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis is the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. Lewis is a faculty member of the Yale University School of Art, has served on President Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, and been selected for Oprah’s Power List. The Communications Network spoke to her about the difference between success and mastery, how a near-win can be a good thing in the long run, and why grit matters more than talent and IQ. A lightly edited transcript follows.
The Communications Network: Your book is an interesting mixture of topics: creativity, mastery, and failure. What inspired you?
Sarah Lewis: The book is about the unusual, improbable foundations that undergird our most iconic achievements, whether that’s an achievement in entrepreneurial realms or invention or creativity.
I approached this book as a curator. I used to work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern. I’m also a cultural historian.
Over time, I would start to see these kind of back-turn paintings in artist studios, things that they didn’t want to show me, but I knew were integral for the work that they did want to show me, that would then go on to have a platform at MoMA, etcetera. I started to wonder if that idea of this back-turn painting being critical for masterful work wasn’t applicable beyond a creative realm of endeavor, whether I thought that it was true for entrepreneurial feats as well.
Over time, I would just look at a set of different examples. The book looks at an atlas of about 150, but, when I began to write, I knew, at the time, that Martin Luther King got Cs in oratory class, for example, went on to become our most prestigious orator in the century.
I knew that Fred Astaire’s screen test said in 1930s, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little,” and he went on to revolutionize his genre.
These stories populate the book, but, really, they were just known to me because I’ve been just organically interested in this notion that some of our most inventive achievements have come from places that we don’t expect.
Guest Post: Ryan Reynolds
Indexes are handy ways to track and report progress. You can’t beat the Dow Jones Industrial Index to follow the ups and downs of stock prices. Ditto the Consumer Price Index, which compares the cost of goods and services from year to year.
But what if you want to track progress on important social issues? Thanks to troves of data available these days, nonprofits are increasingly using indexes to communicate about their work and their underlying causes.
If You Don’t Know, Test
Do you know which email subject lines work best? How about what will make the home page of your website more likely to get your target audiences to engage?
The reason: “People don’t always do what we think they’re going to do.” That’s why, he adds, “testing is crucial in every business, including communications.”