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Sarah Lewis at Summit: ‘Triumph stems from failure’

Thursday, October 23, 2014  
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Mastery and triumph often stem from uncertainty and failure, according to creativity guru Sarah Lewis, the opening keynote speaker of the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 23 in Atlanta.

"Often the most pioneering ideas first look like anything but,” Lewis, author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search of Mastery, told a sold-out crowd of 1,100 Network of Executive Women members.

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The greatest entrepreneurs, artists and creative individuals share four traits, Lewis said:

  • They focus on mastery, not success. Lewis recalled watching the Columbia University archery team practice for three hours. The near-Olympic-level team, populated by all women, came off the bus "carefree warriors, eating ice cream with one hand, arrows in the other,” she said. "I watched them constantly reinvent themselves with every attempt to shoot. They were able to hit a 7 ring but knew they could hit an 8 or hitting an 8 and knowing they could hit a 10. I saw how arduous the process of reinvention was. That is the difference between hitting success – hitting the 10 ring once — and mastering — knowing that it means nothing if you don’t know you can do it again and again.” In business, she noted, the journey to mastery is similar: "the constant pursuit of goals that may never be fully realized, but is meaningful to you and all you work with.”

  • They sustain their mastery by focusing on the near-win. They focus on the gap between where they are and where they want to go, rather than success only. Cezanne, Lewis noted, did not sign 90 percent of his works, because he saw them as near-wins. "Mastery has a sense of the incomplete, the propulsion to move forward,” she said. "Michelangelo said, ‘Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.’ It’s about all about the near-win.”

  • They’ve created for themselves private domains to summon the bravery for iconoclastic decision-making in groups and organizations. In the 1950s, Solomon Asch's experiments demonstrated the degree to which individual opinions are influenced by those of a majority of a group. "People [most often] give up their own opinion on their own idea when faced with dissent,” Lewis said, which stifles creativity and innovation.

  • They’ve developed grit and persevere toward very long-term goals. Citing the work of Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth and The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Lewis noted that "grit is an extreme form of self-control” and is the best predictor of educational achievement more so than talent and IQ. "We’re beginning to understand that failure is part of the process.”


Sarah Lewis, Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University and author of "The Rise,"
was the opening keynote at the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 23, 2014.

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