Failure's Lessons for Success

Sarah Lewis. Photo: Annie LeibowitzAs a visual arts professional, she has a broad range of interests from to 19th century history to the tip of the contemporary edge. She’s also has multiple roles— curator, professor, art foundation advisor, art and education policy wonk, and critic (whose essays have been published in The New Yorker, Artforum, Art in Americaand in catalogues for the 2007 Venice Biennial, the Guggenheim Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, Smithsonian Institution; and The Studio Museum in Harlem). 

From her academic foundation in the visual arts and humanities, her inquiry radiates to cover topics in many other areas of life. So what to call Sarah Lewis? A string like this begins to express it: curator, historian, public intellectual and author — and not ”author” meaning a historian or curator who writes, but a writer to the bone, some one devoted to the art and craft of writing.   

The Dissolve installation view. Photo: Adjaye AssociatesIn interviewing Sarah Lewis for a 2010 IRAAA (v. 23, n.2) article, contributing writer Andrea Douglas considered all of Lewis’s activities and wondered when she slept. Lewis admitted sleep was hard to come by. One of her activities at the time was co-curating The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial. The Dissolve (i.e., the film production term for fading one scene into the next) displayed 26 works that exemplify the role of media technologies in the creation and presentation of modern and contemporary art. Architect David Adjaye designed the 15,000-square exhibition space. Also in 2010 Lewis was profiled in Vogue’s People are Talking column and she made O magazine’s “Power List” of 20 women achievers.

When she was not in the spotlight, Lewis was deep in library stacks or digging through archives or hunkered down at a desk at work on her dissertation. Lewis’ thesis on “Circassian Beauties” examined an odd mix — white women of the mid to late 19th century who were renowned for both purity of their whiteness and the kinkiness of their hair.  And another idea for a writing project was gestating —a book on how failure can be a prelude to success.  She received her Ph.D. from Yale in 2014.

José Parlá working on Barclay's Center mural. Photo: José Parlá collectionHer art activities include serving as art advisor for the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. She urged the board of the new sports and concert venue to commission a mural by José Parlá.  She envisioned how the Brooklyn-based, Cuban American, hip hop insider, graffiti writing, abstract expressionist artist could exemplify the spirit of the borough.  And that he did in Brooklyn Diary, the massive (70’ x 10’) mural at the Center’s entrance— a swirling mass of lines and tagged words and phrases conveying the bristling energies of that urban scene. 

In March 2014, Lewis’ book, The Rise The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, was published.  Lewis’ appearances at Sundance with Robert Redford, on the Charlie Rose Show, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and a TED talk (now considered one of the year’s best talks) helped propel The Rise’s swift rise. By mid-April 2014, sales for the book (#18 on the New York Times bestsellers list) had outpaced those for Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s much-discussed book, Lean In (at # 19).  Lewis knows how work her social network and that network includes many celebrated and influential people. Being as gracious and considerate as she is savvy and energetic has been a key element in her own rise to success.  She demonstrates how old school manners can trump sharp elbows and bravado to facilitate a rise to success.  

One of the most important lessons Lewis learned from working on The Rise is the power of surrender. Surrender “is not giving up but giving over,” she explained in a conversation with performance artist Anna Deveare Smith at the New York Public Library. “There is something much larger than yourself and circumstance.  And by releasing that resistance you find the resources you need to move forward.”

Zumigo, ca. 1980. Photo: Chas. Eisenmann. Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American collection, Beinecke Library, Yale UniversityNow, as a fellow at Harvard’s DuBois Research Institute, Lewis is reworking her doctoral thesis into a second book, Black Sea, Black Atlantic: Frederick Douglass, the Circassian Beauties, and American Racial Formation in the Wake of the Civil War.

Describing her research, Lewis says:

(the book) argues that an understudied literature of pictures by leading photographers Mathew Brady and Charles Eisenmann of widely popular nineteenth century performers, the Circassian Beauties—the afro-coiffed figures hailing from Circassia (in Russia's Black Sea area), the land of purported white racial purity—makes clear that we are in need of a more capacious transatlantic discourse that extends the Black Atlantic to the often disconnected cultural history of the Black Sea….“What does it mean that an aesthetic that we commonly associate with black racial authenticity once represented white racial purity?

Looking at purported “Circassian” beauties during an on-line search, one can see how P.T. Barnum and other showmen latched onto the concept and handily exploited it by circumventing Circassia and exhibiting frizzy-haired American women as the famed beautifies. At least one African American woman called “Zumigo” found an outlet through the fad for her own Africoid beauty.  Lewis is doing extensive research and analysis to dissect this odd and fascinating development in our collective history and to frame it within contexts such as Frederick Douglas’ concept of “thought pictures.” 

The Black Sea, Black Atlantic book will be published in 2016 by the Harvard University Press. — J.H.

Sarah Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Simon & Schuster, 2014 (hardcover).

Elizabeth A. Watson

Sarah Lewis, Robert Redford and others at Sundance Institute, 2014.Right now, failure is trending as a rite of passage. 1  Titles abound: Fail Fast, Fail Often; Failing ForwardHow to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big; and Tavis Smiley’s Fail Up. In addition to conventional self-help wisdom, failure is increasingly touted as indispensable for tech innovations. In this field of failure, Sarah Lewis's take on the subject stands out. Her book The Rise is a meditative journey of discovery. She crisscrossed the U.S. and traveled to the U.K. to conduct interviews which became a yearbook of envelope-pushers —  inventors, performers, explorers, artists and researchers whose activities define their cutting edge in a range of fields. The resulting set of disparate historic and contemporary profiles coalesces in a focus on failure. Far from the opposite of success, Lewis defines failure as the state preceding mastery. 2

The Rise offers several examples of how being an artist is to pursue the process of mastery. Illustrating this point, Lewis presents a work by John Baldessari, a painting displaying text “about how addressing problems is a tenet of art-making itself.” Baldessari’s “Solving Each Problem As It Arises” (1966-1968), literally states art as an on-going exploration. This exploration or process may, or may not, culminate in mastery. Either way, the road to mastery includes success and failure. 

Lewis suggests several ways to conceptualize failure without it serving as an endpoint. She relates it to the concept of zero as a starting point or “pass through” from which any success is a gain. She also compares failure to surrender; arguing that to move forward or past something, it must be accepted. For this latter concept, she offers the metaphor of aikido. She explains the practice of aikido is all about “how to go down and rise stronger.”3 The ability to bounce back, or resilience, is considered essential for those undertaking long-term pursuits. 

In the book, the inclusion of contemporary research on resilience complements a profile of the 18th century inventor Samuel Morse. The account of Morse’s experience as an artist highlights how negative feedback as intrinsic to creative endeavors. Criticism is useful in revealing the “gap between vision and work.” Criticism is often a formal part of instruction. Drawing from her own activities, Lewis takes us briefly into “the pit” where painting and printmaking students at the Yale School of Art receive crits, or critiques of their works. 

While done in front of an audience, “the pit” and “the pool” (for photography students) are located away from the public eye. Their remove underscores something else Lewis deems necessary for the creative process: "safe havens." She encapsulates the concept of a place free of judgment in an August Wilson anecdote. The story goes: a waitress asked the playwright, “’Do you write on napkins because it doesn’t count?’”4

Rather than a how-to guide for managing failure, Lewis loosely weaves narratives of individuals who have pursued mastery. While occasionally detached, her writing is always suggestive. The boredom of archery practice is palpable before she states it. Similarly, an intermittent melancholy expresses the camaraderie of family and friends as foundational to rigorous endeavors.

While it is possible to read chapters of The Rise independently, those who read straight through will be richly rewarded. The concepts, developed through associative thinking, gain traction over successive chapters. Introduced early on, the distinction between success and mastery is further differentiated for artists and others. Lewis’s thought process unfurls with a cumulative effect. As a meditation, The Rise is not easy. Instead, it is demanding taking its time to share a way of thinking and begging discussion.

Elizabeth A. Watson writes on art and architecture.


The New York Times Magazine dedicated the November 16, 2014, issue In Praise of Failure to the subject.

2  The examination process for London taxi drivers, known as the "Knowledge," describes Lewis’s concept to a tee. “There is no such thing as ‘failing’ the Knowledge. You can either quit, or persevere and pass; . . .” Jody Rosen, “Lost Knowledge”, New York Times Magazine (December 7, 2014), 173. In Rosen’s article, failure and mastery are threatened by obsolescent in the face of navigating technologies.

3 Lewis, The Rise.

4 Lewis, ibid.

IRAAA+ articles of related interest: Race, Love and Labor exhibition curated by Sarah Lewis