Sarah Lewis: The Art of Striving

President’s Program keynote discusses the up side of failure

June 29, 2015

Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis keynotes the ALA President's Program on Sunday.

Sunday’s President’s Program began with ALA President Courtney Young presenting awards to the ALA awards recipients. Authors Daniel Handler, Jacqueline Woodson, and Mo Willems were also in attendance to help present the last award, the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity, which went to Ferguson (Mo.) Public Library Director Scott Bonner. (Handler announced that the annual prize now includes a $10,000 gift, which was also mailed to last year’s inaugural winner.)

Art historian, curator, and Harvard professor Sarah Lewis began her keynote to the roomful of librarians by saying that at age 8, she and her sister “Dewey decimaled” the entire collection of books at their apartment while their mom had stepped out.

Lewis, author of the acclaimed debut book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, has served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and has worked at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

For her book, Lewis said she researched 150 historical and contemporary figures and learned that in each case, “They weren’t aiming for success but a kind of mastery. I saw that the ability to sustain that mastery came from being willing to be, at times, a deliberate amateur.” She saw that “individuals need to be gritty … but also needed to know when to quit.”

But all of these traits mean nothing without the proper environment to process, strengthen, and grow, and that environment, she said, is in a private domain. Lewis said this idea is counter to our current era in which “we’re encouraged as creative individuals to share, to show your work, to put your work out there.”

Librarians, however, provide that private domain, she said, “Because you uphold that timeless part of the creative process, the timeless part of personal transformation.”

The first private domain that helped Lewis understand what mastery looks like was the Columbia University archery fields, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Unlike basketball or soccer athletes who may see a promise of glory or fame, Lewis said, “These archers were instead showing me what doggedness looks like in relative obscurity.” It allowed her to see the distinction between success and mastery: Success is hitting that target once, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again.

Lewis says failure is a gift that is essential to creativity. She cited Duke Ellington’s comment about his masterpieces: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.”

Similarly, when she was curating at MoMA and came across Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, she noticed that while attending seminary school, King had received two Cs in public speaking. Lewis thought at the time, “As King received those grades, what must have intensified within him?”

It is the wisdom that comes from mastery, she said, noting a prayer given by Michelangelo: “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”

As a scholar, Lewis said she tries to create an environment in her classroom that doesn’t focus on success as the goal: “The journey of creative pursuits is about not the arrival but the reach and what occurs to us in this process.”

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