Do I let myself fail enough?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

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It's not only okay to fail, it's often necessary in order to achieve greatness, says Sarah Lewis, a critic at Yale University School of Art and former member of President Obama's Arts Policy Committee. In her new book, The Rise, Lewis reveals why setbacks and mistakes can be the very things that push us toward mastery.

O: How has our culture misunderstood the term failure?

Lewis: It was never meant to describe human beings—according to one historian, the usage of failure shifted in 19th-century America from denoting bankruptcy to describing people. It's been a forced fit from the start: We think of failure as a dead end, a point of no return, but the human spirit is dynamic, not static.

O: What should we call failure—and how should we feel about it—instead?

Lewis: You can call it a learning experience, a step on your path. Consider the way an athlete replays the tape of her last game, gleaning ways to improve, or how scientists get great use out of lessons from failed hypotheses. Mastery is an ever-onward proposition. William Faulkner wrote an appendix to The Sound and the Fury 16 years after it was published; less than 10 percent of Cézanne's paintings bear his signature, and some art historians theorize that this was because he was never fully satisfied with them.

O: And missteps are valuable, too, right?

Lewis: They can be, absolutely. Mistakes keep you striving. In fact, expertise can actually hinder innovation. There's a company called InnoCentive that crowdsources answers to problems other companies can't fix, perhaps because they're too ingrained in their expertise to see solutions. Who provides many of those solutions? Amateurs. Because amateurs are often more willing than experts to be wrong, and being wrong is often how you figure out what's right.

O: So when you're faced with a setback, you should accept it—but then what?

Lewis: Make friends with it, then get some distance. When you have a bit more fortitude, look at it objectively, as though you're observing the actions of another person. Pick it apart to find what was positive. Give yourself a safe haven to try out new techniques. Remember all those who felt this way before you. Find camaraderie with every artist, every person, who discovered their greatest advantages in the very things most of us don't want to discuss: mistakes. And know that you're in excellent company.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff