Sarah Lewis: Turning Failure Into Success

At the PCMA Education Conference next month, Sarah Lewis will talk about surviving failure.

Although it’s at the very heart of the subject — and the title — of curator and historian Sarah Lewis’ book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, the word “failure” doesn’t appear often on its pages. Failure is an imperfect term, Lewis writes, partly because once we begin to transform failure, it ceases to be that.

But since the recession, failure has come up a great deal in the context of business, said Lewis, who this month will present a General Session at the PCMA Education Conference, and next month will become assistant professor of history of art and architecture and African and African American studies at Harvard University. Most people realize, she told Convene, that the word doesn’t quite describe the dynamic we’re most interested in: “The one of unprecedented transformation which failure often begins for people. We’re talking about praiseworthy failures — things that lead to outcomes that are desirable that couldn’t have come any other way.”

Convene talked to Lewis about what allows people to convert failure into an advantage, the role that conferences can play in supporting transformative thinking, and the “dark side” of grit.

Do you think that there is an overly binary understanding of what constitutes success and failure?

Yes, I do. I don’t think that the opposite of success is failure anymore, or the opposite of failure is success…. I’ve come up with a definition of failure that I think is most accurate: You’re really looking at the gap between where you are and where you want to go. And the larger it is, the more people tend to call it failure. The smaller it is, the more we experience [it as] trials and setbacks.

Often that gap is a very internal feature of our lives. We can look at someone who is seemingly successful, and they have the external trappings of success or they have hit benchmarks that we would say would deem them successful. But internally they feel that they’re failing because they still have a gap. They have an unrealized dream in their heart that they know really is what they should have gone after, want to go after, and fell very far away from.

One of the things that you’ve identified as a necessary ingredient for mastery — which you define as a “curved-line, constant pursuit” — is grit. Your definition of grit, however, in more nuanced than just tenacity alone.

Grit is the ability to withstand pursuit of your goal over years, if not decades, in the face of failure or [negative] feedback.

But it’s also being able to surrender — to know when it’s appropriate to quit and to move forward. Grit needs to be supple in order to be sustained and helpful to our lives, in much the same fashion as a tree that endures through winds because it actually can bend with it. It’s slightly pliant; it’s not overly rigid. We do have to have a similar kind of supple capacity, as much as we are dogged in our pursuits. The question is, how does grit not become dysfunctional persistence? There is a dark side to grit, and researchers are trying to find ways to work around it in terms of how one develops supple grit.

I would say that we already have a mechanism to teach this nimble form of grit — and that is through having some exposure to being creative, even if you don’t want to go into the arts. For example, being able to be pliant in your grit requires having enough agency to know which direction you want to take and when, and having an internal guide offer you that answer. And that’s where the arts are so exemplary in teaching, especially at a young age, when you have art instruction or an art class, when you’re given the first experience of being able to decide for yourself how to do something, because there really is no one right answer.

What would be your prescription for conferences, in order for them to be a place that would enable mastery?

I cite FailCon in the book as an effective development conference for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley…. [T]he conference has very high-level executives and CEOs like Travis Kalanick of Uber come speak, and the only requirement is that they are only allowed to speak about their failures. They can’t get up and say anything about their success. It’s just failure talks.

People go to the conference in order to learn from their mistakes, but to also have a safe space in which to discuss failures.… What does a conference do to make that effective? Well, in lowering the barriers to a discussion about failure — there were none because everyone had to do it — they created a truly safe space. They created, effectively, a private domain out of a public gathering. And that’s rare to do, but I think it can be replicated.

And it’s so important because part of the work on The Rise is to get people to be able to shift their thinking about the nature of creative, innovative ideas, and what it truly takes for them to occur.  And what I’m seeing as part of the subtext of that whole narrative is that many of the effective modes of processing for a lot of iconic, classic decisions is that they occur in private spaces. But there are ways in which conferences can allow for that kind of inner rumination.

What’s that line from The Great Gatsby? “I like big parties. They’re so intimate.” It’s true. The larger the gathering, the more intimate it can seem, and the more you can let yourself be with your own thoughts, having shifts constantly.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.