Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Five Ways Failure Leads to Mastery

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever-onward almost."

bullseye failure
“The pursuit of mastery is an ever-onward almost,” writes Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. Although that phrase, “the gift of failure,” is one my brain resists (that failure was no gift—I earned it!), I understand what the author means.

To the resilient, failure just means having to be patient and trying again and again. In fact, I posted about this idea not long ago, about well-known scientists who found success after blundering badly.

Lewis, who has just earned her Ph.D. from Yale, offers plenty of examples of striving to do better after a subjective sense of failing, including these from history: Michelangelo claiming his “painting is dead,” poet Czeslaw Milosz feeling he hadn’t “unveiled” himself enough after each book came out, Duke Ellington’s favorite song always being the next one he would compose.

Lewis, who served on Obama’s Arts Policy Committe, is a Critic at the Yale University School of Art in the MFA program. A fifth of The Rise is notes at the end, so you know it’s well researched and far more credible than a simple cheerleading effort. Following are a few tidbits to chew on:

FIVE TIPS TOWARD MASTERY:

1. Note the Dunning-Kruger effect: The greater our proficiency, the more clearly we recognize the possibilities of our limitations. If you think you’re already “there,” you may know less than you think you do.

2. Write on napkins, or the equivalent. By taking your initial efforts less SERIOUSLY, it makes your drafts feel like a safe haven in which the inner critic isn’t invited in yet.

3. Recognize the Zeigarnik Effect, which is based on replaying notes to try to piece together an entire melody. Make use of that “nagging” voice in your head. It’s the unconscious posing a repeated question to the conscious mind: Can you please “make a plan” to resolve this incomplete endeavor?

4. Relish being an amateur. Use your sense of playfulness to be a beginner, freeing yourself to be more creative and trying things in which you’re not an expert.

5. Apply true grit. Grit, that crucial stick-to-it-iveness, sometimes involves sticking with a higher-level goal by shifting lower-level tactics. Knowing when to change course and withdraw your effort may be an art of its own.

 Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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