Failure — Driver for Creativity

Review of Sarah Lewis’ The Rise

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.

Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – Scott Adams


the-Rise-Lewis-review - bookcover

Is failure a mandatory step in achieving mastery? This is the question that art historian and curator Sarah Lewis examines in her book The Rise. It seems like many of the great achievements —  in art, science, and technical inventions — are actually not just achievements but corrections of failed attempts. The Rise is full of stories about people who developed breakthrough ideas at the end of a zig-zagging path that changed course though mistakes. What makes this book a worthwhile read for me is not just the evidence of failure being an integral part on the way to mastery, but Lewis’ insights on how to handle failure.

For example, by telling the story of Robert Scott’s way to Antartica, Lewis shows surrendering as a form of accepting failure. If we stop fighting mistakes and learn to embrace them  we can redirect our energy instead of wasting it on battles that can’t be won. A later chapter of her book, “The Grit of the Arts”, creates a challenging dichotomy with the idea of surrender. To explain the concept of “grit,” Lewis presents the findings of psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who says that grit is the ability to cope with failure, and the drive to get back again and again. Grit is a defining trait of successful entrepreneurs, artists and innovators, even though it seems to contradict a core value of our society. As Duckworth says, “Nobody fails anything in the US.”

Typically when we aim for mastery we seek perfection, we try to get better and better at the things we do. In the chapter “The Deliberate Amateur,” Lewis shares the example of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andre Geim, who attributes a big part of his success to his efforts in cultivating a “beginner’s mind.”  Lewis explains, “Driven by mulse and desire, the amateur stays in the place of a constant now, seeing possibilities to which the expert is blind.” Innovation benefits from the broad exploration of different territories. When we deliberately seek to enter new domains and explicitly become amateurs we stimulate our creativity and increase the chance for innovation to happen.

The Scott Adams quote at the beginning might as well be extended from art to other forms of creativity like innovation, inventions, and new concepts of any kind. Lewis shows us why we need to accept that mistakes happen and shows us different options for treating them and to learn from them. Her book is a plea to not let fear of failure inhibit us from working our way towards mastery but to embrace it as a constituent element.



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