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The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

by Sarah Lewis (2015)


–Review by Douglas Balzer

Three words, yes, three words resonated with me in the title of this book and drew me to it. Creativity, failure, and mastery are the words that drew me in. I am well acquainted with all three, and I suspect you are too, especially failure, Ugh! In The Rise, Sarah Lewis explains the integral roles of creativity, failure, and mastery play as necessary parts of our journey in life. If you received the same coaching, I have throughout my life since early childhood you were encouraged to look at failure as a part of the learning process. Failure is not something we go our looking for in our journey, but it is ubiquitous in the experiences of all human beings. One statement I learn to say to myself is “failure is never the end.” And it is not the end of our stories.

The outstanding quote from Sarah Lewis in The Rise is “I still remember the shudder when I sensed a knowing as sure as a fact – that I might only truly become my fullest self if I explored and stayed open to moving through daunting terrain.”

So, here are my takeaways from The Rise. Lewis explains that part of success rests on what psychologist call “The Dunning-Kruger effect.” It states amateurs are more willing to take risks because their ignorance protects them from fear of failure. While in contrast, once proficient, we often see possible pitfalls and steer away from them towards safety and give up aspects of innovation.

Lewis gives the example of Sara Blakely, who just before the age of 29 created Spanx, a women’s hosiery that propelled Blakely to become one of the few women billionaires who created wealth without any aid from a husband or through an inheritance. Blakely shared she was conditioned from an early age to see failure as part of any learning process. She explains he father would ask his children at the dinner table every night, “What have you failed at today?” Through this question, he taught them to see failure, not as an outcome, but merely the result of one attempt.

Trial and error lead us to places we never imagined going. Then, this most skilled teacher, adversity, comes in, the wheat separates from the chaff so to speak. Okay, I couldn’t resist the farming metaphor. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. overcame a childhood speech impediment? And Samuel Morse toiled as a painter before inventing the telegraph?


Now, here are three lessons from the book to help us embrace failure as part of the journey we are in:


First, innovation is non-linear, so keep pushing and learning until you break through.

Second, take literal and figurative breaks from criticism to make room to take risks.

Third, (I like this word) have grit, get a thick skin in the face of defeat, it will eventually lead us to mastery.

We all have the potential to create and innovate, parents, spouses, employees, athletes, entrepreneurs, and CEO’s. All of us can discover or develop ideas that will help us keep going when others give up!


Lesson 1: Innovative work rarely translates directly to the output, so you must relentlessly focus on what you control.


There is one person whose advice you definitely won’t want to take while failing your way to success is Homer Simpson: “You’ve tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” Endurance, consistency, and persistence are requisites for mastery. At the same time, it’s crucial that innovators and artists not get tied up in perfectionism while pursuing a goal.


When Sarah Lewis spent a day with the women’s archery team from Columbia University, she learned such focus requires sustained mindfulness and intensity. The Archer’s Paradox refers to the fact that although the archer cannot control the weather, she has to factor in those elements before releasing the arrow. She must be willing to try again and again, whatever the environment dictates.


Mastery comes to those who are willing to shoot countless times while remembering

all they can do is observe and give their best.


Lesson 2: Taking mental and physical space away from criticism makes room for innovators and creatives to take risks.


The Gap refers to space between what you’ve achieved and your potential to reach for more. While in the Gap, it makes sense to separate yourself from your critics so that you feel safe taking risks.


The playwright August Wilson wrote on napkins in restaurants (does this remind you of Len Sweet). When a waitress asked him why he wrote on those instead of paper, he replied: “Because it doesn’t count.” Writing on something easily discardable gave Wilson the freedom to explore and crumple the napkin without judging himself.


However, criticism and pressure eventually play a crucial role in the growth of a creator and their projects. Leonard Bernstein advised, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” In the beginning stages, however, too much heat will burn out the artist.


Whatever creative work you do, you are managing the Gap between your actual work and your vision of what could be is hard enough. So first make sure you are satisfied with your work, and then let the chips fall where they may.


Lesson 3: Understand using your critics to become better requires grit, but it’s worth it.


The director of Iowa University’s writing program has noted that the writers most likely to achieve success are not those with the most natural talent. It is the individual who sits down at the keyboard day in and day out. When one article, short story, or novel is complete, the pro writer begins the next project. They might glance back, but they’ll always keep moving forward.


Any artistic or innovative endeavor leaves the creator open to criticism. It is impossible to please everyone, especially when you’re asking people to step away from a long-held belief or way of doing things. In this context, grit means being able to listen to criticism, assess its validity, and incorporate any relevant changes into future works.


As a painter, Samuel Morse spent years stretching canvases, readying them for paint. He may never have become wildly successful in this field, but his experience eventually led him to transform stretcher bars into a telegraph machine. Over twenty years, Morse used every criticism to reframe the objects he with which was working. Until he created something the world had never seen before, but that changed everything.


Grit requires a mix of internal strength and environmental factors, but it’s what indeed encourages creators to keep going. The gritty artist, entrepreneur, or athlete is the one who’ll succeed.


Sarah Lewis, in her book The Rise, will instill you with a can-do mindset without varnishing over the fact that the bumps in the road are a part of the journey. She distills personal, historical and current-day stories of individuals whose paths may not have been straight, but certainly, inspire and encourage us to strive alongside them.