Sarah Lewis's ‘The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search For Mastery’

‘The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search For Mastery’

It took Natasha three tries to get into, but once she got in, she was hooked. Sarah Lewis's The Rise is an anecdotally-driven, curious exploration of failure, mastery, and what it means to go wholeheartedly after your dreams. But don't expect any easy rewards.

The opening chapter of Sarah Lewis’s book left me writhing with frustration. Ever-impatient for a delicious revelation, I found myself instead reading a seven-page description of Lewis’s visit to a university archery practice, swiftly followed by another anecdote about her own application to university. The feeling of constantly being on the edge of ‘the point’, without ever quite reaching it, was almost painful, and I found myself scanning forward through the paragraphs, trying to find the sentence when Lewis would reveal the deeper significance of the anecdote in a concise manner. It never arrived.

Revisiting the book a couple of days later, I came to it a little tired and less eager to approach it from a ‘reward’ perspective. At that moment, The Rise really came into its own, and I was able to see why so many people have raved about it since its release.

The Rise is a rich and sensory exploration of the journey towards mastery, set within the context of artistry and failure. Within each chapter are lengthy and personal descriptions of the lives of people striving for greatness in their field: an arctic explorer, a physicist, a Olympic athlete. Intertwined with their stories are glimpses of the greatest lessons they’ve learned about mastery; lessons featuring failure, play, surrender, and grit. 

The concepts she addresses are complex and visceral, which is why her anecdotal style lends itself so well to their exploration. Some of the stories she tells, however, make up 95% of entire chapters and go into almost poetic levels of detail: “The flint blade-like ends hover, as if pinched by a giant…”, leaving you wondering if she simply couldn’t find enough to say on her subject in its essence. Even using the chapter titles, it’s often very hard to figure out what you’re in the process of reading about, especially if you’re not immediately able to follow Lewis’s unusual blend of academic vocabulary and wafty poeticism. What I discovered, however, was that given time, the stories and interviews she relates roll around your brain for days afterwards, gradually distilling and becoming clearer and more compelling.

For me, the process of reading the book was in itself a practice in letting go of preconceptions and hopes and simply going with the flow; an approach to life that Lewis discusses in the book. I doubt, however, that this was intentional.

If, like I initially was, you’re hungry for a concise, to-the-point examination of the concepts Lewis is addressing, The Rise will be a painful, dragging book, and I’d advise you to steer clear. But if you’re willing to relax into a fascinating examination of the lives of pioneering individuals and allow the revelations to arise on their own, The Rise is a deeply rewarding read. 

Top Takeaways

Protect your ideas by keeping them private… even if it’s just for a while.

’In a world where we are increasingly blasted by the stories of others, retreating to recover our own is more vital than ever before’ . 

Lewis says there’s a good reason that artists have private studios and hideaways - releasing your ideas to the outside world (and its critics) can kill them before they even have time to become fully-formed. And it’s not just physical hideaways and outside critics that this concept relates to, either. Pultizer-prizewinning playwright August Wilson used to write on napkins in restuarants. When asked why, he realized that the act of writing on a throwaway item removed the pressure inherent in sitting down to be ‘a writer'. ‘His napkin became an incubator, a safe haven, a way of silencing the brash inner critic before it was time for it to have its say’. Find places and techniques that exclude inner and outer critics - it will free your mind to do what you want to do, rather than what you feel you should.

Set tough boundaries to narrow your focus

‘Head to a retreat, give yourself a deadline, make it nearly impossible to get something done, and a new reservoir can often open up’. 

When your mind is flooded with possibilities, options, and fears, the most powerful thing you can do is make it difficult for yourself to entertain them. As composer Leonard Bernstein said: ‘To achieve great things two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time’. By all means entertain all of your ideas initially. But at some point, you need to draw the line, ‘flip the funnel’, and whittle down your focus to a single path. You can do this by creating temporal boundaries; choosing a date by which you must have made a decision on something, and treating it as though it is utterly set in stone.

Stop resisting your discomfort

‘When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power.’ 

When you’re stressed, strung-out, or worried about something you’re working on, don’t fight the feeling. Learning to sit quietly with your discomfort allows you to see your situation clearly. 

Be an amateur

‘The biggest adventure is to move into an area in which you are not an expert’. 

Physicist André Geim runs Friday Night Experiments at his laboratory: on Friday nights, the scientists can work on whatever madcap, fun, exciting project they want, with no fear of failure or ridicule. This freedom to play, to release themselves from the ‘expert’ title, means that their work is innovative, imaginative, brave, and often ultimately more productive than their work by day. Giving up on the idea that you have to do something great, or even something right, creates a new and powerful way of approaching your work.