Almost Winning? or The Gift of Failure


Not every work of art can be a masterpiece – which is why we have to reconsider the role of the near win and the art of failure, says author, curator and art historian Sarah Lewis. Her TED Talk of the Week explains, why she thinks that “the creative process is actually how we fashion our lives and follow other pursuits” and that “failure is not something that might be helpful – it actually is the process.”

Around five years ago, Lewis emerged as a cultural powerhouse – with fresh perspectives on the dialogue between culture, history, and identity. Next to her studies, she has also worked in Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee, as a curatorial advisor and landed a spot on Oprah’s 2010 “Power List”.

Most recently, she published her debut book – The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery – which analyzes various studies on how setbacks can become a tool enabling us to master our destinies. The pursuit of success and mastery celebrates creativity and can lead us through fear and failure – to ultimate success.

In her talk at TED2014, Lewis likened this pursuit to a phenomenon known as the Archer’s paradox: aiming slightly next to the target results in more success than trying to hit the bulls eye. It was while watching 3 hours of Archers at practice – pursuing excellence – that allowed her a rare to glimpse on the difference between the success of hitting and the mastery of doing it again and again.

It is not commitment to a goal, it is to keep pursuing while embracing the near win. During her time at the Museum of Modern art in New York, Lewis had spent significant time on Elizabeth Murrays early works from the 1970s. It was said that in many cases, the artworks had not become what the artist had wanted them to be. She through them in the trash. However, her neighbour noticed their value and saved them.

Other popular examples underlining that phenomenon include Paul Cezanne, who only signed 10 percent of his paintings, Franz Kafka, who actually had wished for all his incomplete works being burned after his death, or Duke Ellington, who once said his favourite song written by himself was “always the next one.”

Lewis concludes that the our personal pursuit needs to embrace the near win and the art of failure, since our endeavours are actually an ever onward almost. Like Adam and God in the Sistine Chapel: not quite touching – reaching, not arriving. Sarah Lewis is “applying her turbocharged intellect to bridging the gap between art and social policy,” wrote Vogue in May 2010. If that’s not enough for you, why don’t you watch her TED talk – and be inspired to fail!

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