The Gift of Failure

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Sarah Lewis, art critic at Yale's MFA program and a member of President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, is the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014). In it, she tells the stories of people like Frederick Douglass and J.K. Rowling and how they acquired creative success from what they learned from failure.

EVENT: Sarah Lewis, Anna Deavere Smith and Angela Lee Duckworth at the New York Public Library, March 26, 7-8 p.m., 5th Avenue at 42nd Street.

Excerpt: THE RISE: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis.


The women of the Columbia University archery team stepped out of their van on a cold spring afternoon with a relaxed focus; one held a half-eaten ice cream cone in her right hand and a fistful of arrows with yellow fletching in her left; another sported a mesh guard over her shirt, on top of her breast as protection from the tension line of the bow. Baker Athletics Complex, the university’s sporting fields at the northern tip of Manhattan, seemed to have a set of carefree warriors on its grounds.

A man who maintains the property never thought they would arrive. Maybe he was new, because I asked where the archery team would practice and he looked at me quizzically. He didn’t believe that archery was a real Columbia team sport. It was understandable. I had arrived early and the targets were not yet up. Releasing arrows at up to 150 miles per hour aimed at targets seventy-five yards away means safety issues for all around, so the archery team doesn’t practice next to any other. Mastery of this high-precision sport stays largely out of sight.

Coach Derek Davis drove up with the archers and greeted me with his elbow leaning against the gray van’s driver’s side window. His silvery-white dreadlocks hung past his shoulders, covered under a blue patterned bandana that matched his Columbia University archery sweatshirt. He struck me as a composite fit to match this clan: gregarious and at ease, yet focused. On the phone a few days earlier, he had told me that he first picked up the sport as a casual hobby at his wife’s insistence in the late 1980s (“It was safer than pool and didn’t involve alcohol”). He has led the varsity and intramural club teams since 2005 as one-part biomechanical expert, one-part yogi—a university sage fit for ancient warfare turned sport.

The young women smiled and sized me up a little, then passed as I stood beside the chain-link fence entrance to their designated turf. One threw away her melting cone and joined the others who were unpacking the gear from the van’s trunk. They spoke not with words, but by exchanging numbers, their ideal scores or degrees to position themselves to hit their targets.

The women were preparing for an upcoming Nationals competition. (There are no men on this varsity team, only at the intramural level of play.) I watched as they carefully set down their compound and recurve bows—like those used at the Olympics, with tips that bend away from the archer—then drew and let loose arrows that curved and fell out of sight as they hit the round target face. Davis didn’t hover, but stood a good distance behind them, perhaps assessing who might need support. Spread out, farther off at the edge of the turf, were tool- kits filled with spools, pliers, wrenches, hammers, and nails.

Two archers lined up to shoot. Only one wanted to know her score. Davis was looking with his binoculars downrange, the length of nearly two tennis courts from their location, as one archer let her first arrow fly. I could just hear the sound of a whip cracking the air.

“Seven at six o’clock.” “Nine at two o’clock.”

Her shots weren’t grouping yet. “Ten, high.”

“Ten, way high.”

After the next arrow sailed, there was no sound.

“No. Don’t look at that one!” she said, shifting her feet, dropping her bow. “I don’t even think it hit the target.”

“Yeah,” Davis confirmed, “I don’t even see it.”

As I stood behind her, trying to place myself in her position, I couldn’t imagine how even one had hit the target. Every archer calculates the arc of a rise (the drop and horizontal shifts of an arrow’s path), a trajectory only they can predict. Before even accounting for wind speeds, there is always some degree of displacement that hap- pens when the arrow leaves the bow at a skew angle from the target so that the fletching doesn’t hit the string upon release. This is how the arrow is crafted. If you are right-handed in archery, you’ll aim slightly to the left to hit the bull’s-eye. This skill means focusing on your mark, the likely shape of an arrow’s arched flight, and the many variables that can knock it off all at once. The most precise archers call this process of dual focus split vision.

It also requires constant reinvention—seeing yourself as the person who can hit a ten when you just hit a nine, as an archer who just hit a seven, but can also hit an eight. Archery is one of the sports that gives instantaneous, precise feedback. It puts athletes into rank order of how they measure up against their seconds-younger selves. Archers constantly deal with the “near win”: not quite hitting the mark, but seconds later, proving that they can.

If an archer’s aim is off by less than half a degree, she won’t hit her target. “Just moving your hand by one millimeter changes everything, especially when you’re at the further distances,” said Sarah Chai, a recent Columbia graduate and former cocaptain of the varsity archery team. From the standard seventy-five-yard distance from the target, the ten-ring, the bull’s-eye, looks as small as a matchstick tip held out at arm’s length. Hitting the eight-ring means piercing a circle the size of the hole in a bagel from 225 feet away. And that’s while holding fifty pounds of draw weight for each shot.

It’s a taxing pursuit. Well into a three-hour practice, two of the women were lying down, their backs on the turf behind the shooting line, staring up at the sky. Three hours per day of meditative focus, trying to find what T. S. Eliot would call “the still point of the turning world,” requires a unique, sustained intensity. Living on a landscape where an infinitesimal difference in degree leads to a massive difference in outcome is what makes an archer an archer. It means learning to have the kind of precision that we find in the natural world—like that of a bee’s honeycomb or the perfect hexagonal shape of the rock formations on Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. When archers start getting good, with scores consistently above 1350 (out of 1440), they taper down, shoot less, and attend to their concentration, breathing techniques, meditation, and visualization. One teammate, overwhelmed with exams, still made it up to Baker’s fields because the focus she gets from archery calms her about everything. “When I was studying abroad, I was going crazy with- out having it,” she said. Without the regimen, she felt irritated all the time.

I stayed at the archery practice for three hours. Someone watching me might have wondered why. For all the thrill of discovering a new sport, it was, admittedly, interminable. I hadn’t brought binoculars, and it is hard to concentrate for three hours on what is right in front of you but not easily seen. It was also a cold day, but I stayed to witness what I was starting to feel I might never glimpse: “gold fever,” or “target panic,” as it’s called—what happens when an archer gets good, even too good, compared to her expectations, and starts wanting the gold without thinking about process. In extreme cases, it means that one day she is hitting the bull’s-eye, the next day her arrows could end up in the parking lot. No one is clear about whether it’s choking, a kind of performance anxiety, or some form of dystonia. But what we do know is that the only way to recover fully from it is to start anew, to relearn the motions and to focus on the essentials—breathing, stance, position, release, and posture. None of the archers I saw seemed to have target panic. Few are willing to admit it even if they do.

Yet something else about archery gripped me enough to keep me there. The reason occurred to me as I left practice, walking down Broadway. I stumbled upon a national historic landmark, a restored eighteenth-century Dutch colonial farmhouse owned by the Dyckman family. It once stood on acreage that spanned the width of Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River, but is currently nestled on the busy avenue behind shrubs and foliage, raised and hidden nearly out of sight. The incongruity of the farmhouse on Broadway intrigued me and I went in for a tour. It was, in fact, my second such visit of the day. Watching an archery team in this modern age had been like seeing a similarly ancient relic, a vestige of a past way of work that we rarely spot in action—not a contest, where there is a victor, but the pursuit of mastery.

The mastery I witnessed on the archery field was not glamorous. There was nobility in it all, but no promise of adulation. There is lit- tle that is vocational about American culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude, what it takes to align your body for three hours to accurately account for wind speeds and hit a target—to pursue excellence in obscurity. It was an unending day in and day out attempt to hit the gold that few will ever behold. Perhaps I noticed it more than I would with the practice required for a more familiar, popular sport such as basket- ball or football, one with more chance of glory or fame. To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.

There was another reason. As each arrow left for its target, the archers were caught between success (hitting the ten) and mastery (knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again). If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that this tension between the two, the momentary nature of success and the unending process required for mastery, is part of what creates target panic or gold fever in the first place.

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate— perfectionism—an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success—an event- based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved- line, constant pursuit.

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Lewis. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.