Failure is not normally seen as a gift. It is not something we usually want or give thanks for getting. Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective. People view it as the opposite of success.

A failure may not be an achievement but can it be seen as a conversion or a correction following a failed attempt?

It is hard for most of us to overcome a lifetime of being told/taught/shown that failing is bad.  The Internet has a meme of “fail” or “epic fail” that accompanies photos, videos or descriptions of people or things falling short of expectations.

“To achieve great things – a plan, and not quite enough time.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

Failure has its fans and the gift of failure is not an idea that is the domain of myself or a few people. I heard a podcast that referenced Sarah Lewis’ book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery which gave me the title for this post. I have not read the book yet, but it seems to be a kind of biography of an idea told through the stories of artists and inventors like Samuel Morse, J.K. Rowling, physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, and an Arctic explorer.

Human endeavors, especially of the creative kind, more often end in failure than success.

I’ve failed over and over and that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan

Debbie Millman gave a nice graduation speech that was based on an essay titled “Fail Safe” from her collection Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. On the idea of failing, she says that most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much.” Her real interest is in how we can “transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating.”

Part of the gift of failure comes from accepting the power of surrender.

“Play” whether it is organized as sport or is creative exploration appears to be, in many studies done, essential for innovation and success.

Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up. – Chinese Proverb

Can we learn to fail better? What Daniel Dennett (who I first encountered in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) calls “intuition pumps are tools that he feels trigger thinking. His first (of 77) “pump” is “making mistakes.” These qualities are skills and not things we are somehow born with or lacking.

One of Sarah Lewis’ lessons in benefiting from failing is in the “near win.” It makes me think of sports and of the benefits of an athlete or team’s near win. My son when he was young had a coach who only cared about winning. He said that a second place finish was being “the best of the worst.” I hated that coach. I saw no benefit to his approach. I saw the harm he could do.

Lewis talks about master archers who spend many hours with a bow and arrow and their “doggedness” which she finds central to her thesis. For the archer, the success of  hitting the bull’s-eye can be viewed as something meaningful only if it can be done again and again. And we know that’s not possible.  The baseball batter who hits a home run and the team that wins a game will inevitably – and probably quite soon – strike out and lose.

We know that. So, why do we expect and desire otherwise?

Lewis cites  psychologist Thomas Gilovich who studied Olympic medal winners. He found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. The near win was harder to take. She also  sites another study that  found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty minutes. So close…

But, more importantly, she also notes that silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around. Is the “near win”a real push that causes the athlete to sharpen focus and try harder? Lewis writes that. “A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance.”

That doggedness or grit or whatever you want to call it is key to the practice of creation. Jersey inventor Thomas, who never claimed genius and had little education, famously said of his many failed attempts to create a feasible lightbulb:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Lewis uses as an example in The Rise the playwright August Wilson.  He preferred to write on paper napkins in restaurants, because that “illusion of impermanence” suppressed self-criticism and his words flowed more freely than when he set them down in type.

Finally, a sentiment that you’ll hear from many writers and artists about their own work is seen in Duke Ellington’s answer to that too-often-asked question of naming his favorite song: it was always the next one waiting to be composed.

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