Insights from Sarah Lewis from the World Business Forum (Sydney)

Harvard Professor Sarah Lewis, delivers a truly insightful session on the importance of mastery in order to successfully achieve goals and knowing how to proceed or when to quit on an idea. Read the insights from her presentation at the World Business Forum.


The gift of failure

In her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis explores the gap between success and mastery and the importance of embracing the near-win and failures on the road to success. She suggests that organisations don’t inoculate themselves from the risks of failure on the way to innovation.

A Professor at Harvard in the History of Art & Architecture and African American Studies Departments, she identifies three characteristics of both individuals and organisations employed where they were able to reap the irreplaceable benefit that comes from difficult circumstances.

A focus on not just success but mastery

Lewis suggests focusing on ‘praiseworthy failure’, which is when you embrace exploratory testing and venture into new terrain with the best possible intentions. When watching the archery team for the Columbia University at a practice session she came to understand the distinction between mastery and success: success is being able to hit that 10-ring once, and mastery is knowing that means nothing if you can’t do it again and again.

“What allows us to sustain that journey of mastery is caring about that gap between where you are and where you know you can go – that gap between the seven and the nine and the eight and the ten is about knowing that you can be better than your second younger self,” she says. “What I ultimately realised is that success is just about the arrival, but mastery is about caring about the reach, it’s knowing that you thrive when you stay on your own leading edge. Mastery is about knowing there really isn’t ever an end to one’s pursuit, that it’s a constant process of accessing and auto-correcting after near-wins.”

This is important because our minds tend to dwell on near-wins more than events that seem less likely to have resulted in triumph. Lewis says many of the great works of art are considered ‘near-wins’ by the artists who created them. For example, the French painter Paul Cezanne didn’t sign 90% of his works because he felt that those works didn’t quite realise his goal to experience nature in paint.

Knowing that mastery can’t be sustained unless you give yourself time to be a ‘deliberate amateur’. To retain the curiosity and the innovation that comes from that childlike perspective.

Lewis suggests providing room to experiment and play when it comes to driving innovation. Many individuals tend to structure time in their organisations or their lives to let themselves be ‘deliberate amateurs’, something she came across when interviewing Sir Andre Geim about his experiments magnetically levitating a live frog. His research first won the Ig Noble Award, which is about work that is so outlandish it first makes you laugh and then makes you think. He accepted the award and the ridicule that came with it, becoming the first scientist to first win the Ig Noble and then the Nobel Prize, which he won for Physics in 2010. His discovery came from his Friday Night Experiments, which was time for his lab at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands to experiment. When asked about his path to the Nobel Prize, Geim said that adventure was far more important in the path towards innovation. “He said that research is actually more about ‘a search’ and what sustains that arduous process, that curved line pursuit of mastery is an attentiveness to the near-wins with the suppleness that play and adventure and curiosity can sustain,” she says. “The buoyancy that comes from this childlike perspective permitted in the safe time of the Friday night experiment allowed them to stay with these unusual ideas for far longer than they would ordinarily.”

This idea of Friday Night Experiments is exportable to other industries, for example, Google’s 20% time where they allow their employees to work on personal projects, something that resulted in Gmail. The Mayo Clinic’s introduced the Quesy Eagle Award for things that didn’t quite make it but yielded patents for ideas later on. In the 18 months the clinic ran the trial they had 246 new ideas for patents compared to 36 at the start of the experiment.

Lewis says that things such as the Friday Night Experiment lower the barrier to the shame that comes with seeming failure on the way to innovation.

Looking at how private domain becomes crucial to allow for iconoclastic thought, to allow for grit, to not become dysfunctional persistence but instead to remain supple enough to allow people to quit an idea when they need to.

Privacy also plays an important role in creativity and innovation because you are asking these questions in a safer space than public arenas allow for. She gives the example of the Black List, an innovation of a young Hollywood executive Franklin Leonard who asked people to nominate the scripts they secretly loved but that didn’t get green-lit. Many of these films went on to win Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, such as The King’s Speech.

Lewis is also fascinated with the idea of grit and how that doesn’t slide into dysfunctional persistence. She gives the example of Samuel Morse who desired to become a famous painter but quit his ambition and turned the failed canvas of one of his paintings into the telegraph itself. This shows that it’s as important to know how to proceed forward as it is to know when you need to quit on an idea despite how much time you’ve invested in it. “One of the reasons that creativity is so crucial for any individual or organisation, even if you’re not going to go into the arts, is that it helps you remain nimble in pursuit of your goals. It helps you have what an archer might call ‘split-vision’, your ability to keep your eye on a goal but to constantly adjust for all the things that might knock your arrow off-course.”

For more information visit the NAB World Business Forum 2015 live insights hub.