To fail is to rise: Sarah Lewis’ “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery”

Failure is one of the hardest experiences we encounter, especially when we fail at something very important to us. Sometimes failure is not our fault – circumstances can be beyond our control. Other projects fade away due to waning interest, but the hardest failures are those that we have loved and lost, the ones we have spent our time and dreams on.

Failure seems to say that we have had a bad idea, we didn’t have the skill to execute that idea, or that we didn’t have the patience to see it through completion. In this defeat we feel a failure in every sense of the word. However, in Sarah Lewis’ recent publication of “The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery,” she asserts that the notion of failure is an important part of the creative process and in being a complete human being. For Lewis, being a “failure” – at least one with clear vision, process, and tenacity – gives you the drive to succeed and the springboard for true mastery.

Ben Saunders
Ben Saunders

Lewis’ spectrum of knowledge and prototypes of successful “failures” in this book are not limited to fine artists. Refreshingly, her definition of creativity is broad and includes scientists, athletes, educators, and film executives. In fact, “The Rise” is not only a creativity self-help book but a cultural history featuring stories of significant figures that are inspirational and relatable.

Two of my favorite examples are Ben Saunders and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In discussing the power of surrender and its ability to help us move through problems organically, Lewis interviewed Ben Saunders, the third person to walk alone to the North Pole. For Saunders, understanding that nature could not be controlled was a key to his success. Acquiescing to the inevitable unpredictability of each step of his journey allowed him to respond to challenges with calm rationality. In the case of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lewis points to the power of the “near win” and how it can push us to exceed seemingly impossible goals. Joyner-Kersee was a silver medal winner in the heptathlon at the 1984 Olympics because she was 1/3 of a second behind her opponent. That near win sparked her drive. At the 1988 Olympics, she set the world record in the same event, earning a gold medal. And even in 1991 when she lost in the qualifying rounds due to a knee injury, she still went on to win a bronze in the long jump in the 1992 Olympics.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie Joyner-Kersee

And this is the most interesting and important part of the work. Creativity and innovation does not always happen at the art studio and is not always seen on a canvas or on stage. Creativity can also be an invention, a business process or an adventure that pushes our understanding of human potential, self-discipline, and ingenuity.

When I talk about creativity with people, more often than not, they dismiss their artistic abilities simply because they cannot draw.  Culturally, we have stereotyped creativity as a way that artists, actors, dancers, and writers develop their works of art. Innovation is the development of  interesting gadgets or an affinity towards dissonant aesthetics. We do not necessarily prize creativity that makes an office run more smoothly or enhances communication between colleagues. I believe that these forms of creativity are just as important and deserving of accolades as works by painters and photographers.

By using a variety of examples, Lewis has written a book that has the potential to strike a chord in almost anyone. Someone in this book will inspire you because they have lost just as you have. In fact, many people in this book have lost more than you ever will and have still had the “grit” to keep moving forward. In short, if failure is something we have in common, as Lewis asserts, then the ability to “rise” above it is something we have in common, as well. It is in this way that no matter where we are in our “dream” we are in the best of company.

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