Sarah Lewis thinks about creativity differently.

In her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah analyses what creativity and innovation look like from the masters - the icons of the arts.

She considered the life stories of the masters in music, film, dance, writers, and the arts and looked at what got these masters to push through to achieve mastery.

Sarah also looked at failure, their perceptions of failure and how they considered the benefits - the fringe benefits of loss, how character-building failure can be and what they used to help propel them to achieve mastery.

We are looking at the narrative of creativity, triumph and innovation and the benefits of difficult circumstances.

Sarah inspires everyone to not just focus on success but on mastery and to do so. You need grit and the suppleness to adapt to close the gap between success and knowledge.

to achieve mastery, you need the determination to work through two types of failures:

  1. Blameworthy failures (unwanted) – inattention and lack of ability; deviation from safety protocol in high-risk operations
  2. Praiseworthy failures (innovation requisites) - exploratory testing, venturing into new ideas in a rapidly shifting industry.

What allows us to sustain mastery is our focus on closing that gap between knowledge and success – to focus on achieving your goal but also caring about the adventure of how you get there.

Mastery is about meeting goal 10,001, caring about the reach and auto-correcting, and self-assessing along the way.

This is important because our psychology works – our mind dwells on near wins rather than wins. It's easier to dwell on what might have been if you had just missed your goal. Yet the near misses can help propel you to achieve mastery.

Consider the master painters of the world. When we gaze upon their innovative and creative works – their masterpieces - we look at what that master considers a near win, riddled with flaws and often an unfinished piece.

Cezanne didn't sign many of his paintings because they were considered to him unfinished or didn't achieve what he hoped they would.

Michelangelo said, "Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish."

Lewis also notes that the accumulation of knowledge can often stymie people. "I know so much I don't know where to begin or what to say". And often, the more people know, the less they think they know.

To be creative and innovate, it's about structuring your time to be deliberate amateurs – to be experimental, to have time to think about what could be. Have an almost childlike experiment.

The adventure is often more critical on your path to innovation. Research is a search and what will sustain mastery - the attentiveness to near wins and having the suppleness to adapt through sheer grit.

Consider Google's 20% time where they allow staff to work on non-core projects, realising that this is where innovation arises. Gmail was created 20% time.

it's about creating safe spaces in public areas, allowing for innovation and creativity.

How often have you been in a meeting and not known you are suppressing the very creative idea that needs to be said because of fear of how the rest of the group would view it?

In Hollywood, the Black List was created for movies that didn't fit the typical formula for success. Franklin Leonard was able to show via the black list the quirky, unusual scripts that were worth sharing.

Franklin Leonard sent an anonymous email asking staff to tell him what screenplays they secretly loved. The results were shocking - thousands of rejected scripts were secretly loved. The King's Speech would never have come to light without the black list.

Half of the last ten years of Academy Award winners have come from the black list. Franklin eliminated the "Ash" test that requires you to predict future releases based on past successes.

Lewis' message is that it's as essential to know when to proceed forward as when to quit an idea. It's about grit – the ability to stand in pursuit of your goal for days, months or decades. Determination allows for good predictors of success.

We need a split vision, just like in archery or art, to have the grit to see how to continue improving and innovating.

And the idea of quitting is not about giving up but about giving over to something larger than yourself, to what it can become if it's a life goal.

It's about surrender, having the fortitude to keep going, not resisting what challenges come your way, and not giving your energy over to things you cannot control.

Lewis encourages others to call on strategic non-resistance and to embrace change as the only constant.

Look at the gifts from the life stories of masters who have benefited from unusual circumstances.

Lewis calls on us to find better road maps as we aim to remain creative personally and in our organisations. She hopes to inspire others to pursue mastery and not merely success.

If we find ways to structure our time to be deliberate amateurs, to create private domains and have the chance to innovate and improve, maintaining grit while being supple enough to know when it's time to surrender.

Randstad is proud to be a major sponsor of the World Business Forum in Sydney from 27-28 May 2015. 

about the author

Sarah Lewis


Lewis is a rising intellectual star. Her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, has been hailed by a who's who of creative thinkers. Lewis Hyde calls it a "welcome departure from standard accounts of artistry and innovation." The New York Times calls it "strikingly original": "Lewis's voice is so lyrical and engaging that her book, The Rise, can be read in one sitting, which is so much the better since its argument is multilayered and needs to be taken whole." Kirkus Reviews writes: "Creativity, like a genius, is inexplicable, but Lewis' synthesis of history, biography and psychological research offers a thoughtful response to the question of how new ideas happen."

Lewis appears on Oprah's "Power List," served on President Obama's Arts Policy Committee, was profiled in Vogue, and is currently the Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. She has held positions at Yale's School of Art, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and her essays have been published in Artforum and The Smithsonian. Her second book, Black Sea, Black Atlantic: Frederick Douglass, The Circassian Beauties, and American Racial Formation in the Wake of the Civil War, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2015. She received her B.A. from Harvard, M. Phil from Oxford, and PhD from Yale. She was a speaker at TED2014 in Vancouver, BC. She is currently a professor at Harvard in the History of Art & Architecture and African American Studies Departments.

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