Sarah Lewis on three traits of creative success: Mastery, privation, and grit

On Nov. 15, Sarah Lewis, author of “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery,” spoke at Pomona College, courtesy of the Humanities Studio. (Ian Poveda • The Student Life)

In 1926, Shadrack Emanuel Lee was in the 11th grade at a public school in Brooklyn and wanted to know why his textbooks presented the concept of “excellence” in only one way. He wanted to know where African Americans were, where Latinos and indigenous Native Americans were — “where the whole world was” — in this history.

The answer his history teacher gave him was that “African Americans in particular had done nothing to merit inclusion.” He didn’t accept that as an answer, so he kept asking and was expelled. He never went back to high school or college, but instead became a painter and a jazz musician.

Sarah Lewis teaches the topics that Lee, her grandfather, was expelled for asking about. Now an assistant professor at Harvard University, Lewis has served on Obama’s Art Policy Committee, and came to Pomona College, courtesy of the Humanities Studio, to speak on the gift of failure and the search for mastery.

“I wanted to know why his images were so deeply inclusive,” she told the audience, discussing her grandfather’s work. “I came to understand that he was creating the very world that he hoped to see in those history books.”

Lewis’ book, “The Rise,” surfaced from her observation that many of us don’t fit inside the expected model of excellence. She was interested in the lives of creative individuals who had “overcome improbable foundations” and concluded that those foundations “were indispensible pathways for their iconic rises.”

Lewis shared that the individuals she interviewed and studied (artists, entrepreneurs, activists, and public servants) had three traits in common.

The first was that these individuals were focused on mastery rather than success. She defined mastery as knowing that success means nothing if you can’t do it successively. Mastery involves being attentive to the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

To this end, Lewis noted that a powerful motivator is nearly — but not quite — succeeding. Olympic silver medalists, for instance, tend to be less satisfied than bronze medalists, because being second makes them attentive to just how close they were to being first. They “often dwell on what could have been,” identifying precisely, and in granular detail, what they need to do to improve.

Lewis referred to Paul Cézanne, who signed less than ninety percent of his paintings because they didn’t meet his goal of “realizing nature.” She asserted that the sense of nearly succeeding catalyzed and propelled the rest of Cezanne’s work. Franz Kafka, not fully satisfied with his writing, asked for all his manuscripts to be burned after his death. Michelangelo, Lewis said, had a prayer that summarized this sense of reaching for more: “Lord, grant that I desire more than I can accomplish.”

Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel Prize (awarded to scientists whose work is outlandish so that it first makes you laugh, and then makes you think) for levitating a frog with magnets. He had discovered that, with the proper magnet, anything that contains water could resist gravity to a certain extent.

Later, he discovered the “two-dimensional” semimetal graphene by using a pencil and scotch tape, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Geim encourages adventure and play in his work; “I don’t research,” he said, “I only search.”

Taking the example of Andre Geim, Lewis encouraged cultivating time to be a deliberate amateur, to ask the questions one wouldn’t usually for fear of being considered outlandish or in-erudite.

This safe environment for experimentation provides a certain sense of privation, Lewis’ second recommendation. She explained that she came to “underst[and] the importance of privacy for overcoming the way failure can prevent creative ideas from emerging” by studying “The Black List” — which emerged when Franklin Leonard asked which screenplays filmmakers “secretly loved, but weren’t funded yet, and certainly wouldn’t be in theatres the coming year.”

The list, first released anonymously, revealed that the screenplays that “people had confessed to love in private” were “screenplays that in public they were deriding.” Many of the screenplays, like “Lars and the Real Girl” and “The King’s Speech,” were difficult to publicly advocate for. Scripts that were quirky and unusual were often publicly framed as failures. In the years since, “half of the awards for best original screenplay have been awarded to scripts from the black list.”

Often, the impact of a crowd “can deaden our willingness to state the unusual.” The Asch line experiment is just one empirical example of how the majority of people will conform, against their initial instincts, at least once when surrounded by others answering the same question, while some may conform every time.

What creativity needs, Lewis said, “is an embryonic state” — a state where the mind will block the idea of failure from “permeating the mind’s eye.” Charles Limb and Allen Braun at Johns Hopkins University found that in a state of musical improvisation, the mind’s inner critic is suppressed; the mind is experiencing privation.

Lewis told a story of a first-year student at the University of Texas at Austin going to a dance in 1931, where he was struck by the power of a trumpet player he’d never heard before: Louis Armstrong. The student felt he was hearing a lyricism that “he knew must come from a kind of genius.” He decided in that moment that “because all this was coming from Armstrong, segregation must be wrong.” He became one of the lawyers for Brown vs. Board of Education, helped outlaw segregation in the United States, and went on to teach at Columbia University and Yale University, where he would hold an Armstrong listening night every year.

“How many movements began,” Lewis riffed, “when a work of art with deep aesthetic force so shifted someone’s notions of the world that they became a leader for justice?”

The third trait, Lewis said, was grit — the resisting of distractions “not only over the course of years but over decades.” Grit is a portable skill: “What you’re developing in one domain of your life, you can transfer to another domain.”

“Grit,” she said, “is best learned by studying the arts; it’s one of the few places we see this kind of malleable shift take place.” It is creativity, she loosely connected, that “prevents the pursuit of success from becoming dysfunctional persistence.”

“What stories of failure propel you?” Lewis intimated. “My hope is that the work you are doing … can benefit from the stories that we are often too embarrassed or shy to discuss [that] truly propel our journeys.”

By the end, Lewis no longer called failure “failure,” but “so-called failure,” which, she believes, “we need another term to describe.”

She explained this was “because ultimately when we talk about the gift of failure, we are speaking about something as natural as the seasons — that moment when what looks like an eternal winter eventually, naturally, does, inevitably, become spring.”

Blake Plante PO ’19 is an English major. He is most commonly spotted scribbling into an all-weather notebook at all events.

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