2014  June 8

Interviewing Sarah Lewis

There’s a great interview on Sarah Lewis and her new book The Rise that was recently published in Technology Review. Below is a quick interview that I did with her a few months ago that I haven’t had a chance to post:

JM: Rocco Landesman, former Chairman of the NEA, would often say that it isn’t that artists are good at failing, but instead that they are experts at *productively* failing. His comment would often bring to mind how I loved Nelson Mandela’s saying of, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” What are your thoughts about what “productively failing” means, and what other kinds of failure have you found?

SL: I love the wisdom in both comments. What I’ve learned from writing about the lives of some incredible men and women—inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs mainly—is that part of the mystery of creativity and leadership—forging new paths of all kinds—requires finding advantages in so-called failure. It is something we haven’t talked about openly until recently. Abraham Lincoln said, “men are greedy to publish the success of [their] efforts, but meanly shy as to publishing the failures of men. Men are ruined by this one sided practice of concealment of blunders and failures.” It is as true today as it was then. Yet in inventions from the telegraph to graphene, we’re enjoying the benefits of “productive failure.”

SL: Leonard Bernstein thought that “productively failing” was part of the key to the creative process in a sense. Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Handling limitations can result in breakthroughs because a deadline can create a sense of uncertainty about meeting our goal. It can leads to more creative solutions. Playwright Tennessee Williams also built productively failing into the process. He would start writing a play before his reviews were out because he said that “apparent failure” motivated him. He more compelled to get back to work that way than if he had a success.

SL: The most productive kind of failure I’ve seen is the “near win.” I spoke about this in my TED talk. The most timeless kind of failure I’ve found is what I’d call the imposition of failure—times when the world is not ready for a breakthrough, yet an audience years or even decades later recognize the artist’s contribution to the world (i.e. Herman Melville, Beethoven etc.). In these cases, the failure is ours. But this is also the trickiest kind. Assuming that you are having a failure simply because the world isn’t ready for you can also lead to trouble.

JM: Ten years ago I wrote a book on simplicity, and recounted a story of how black belt Karate masters experience the color in their belt washing and wearing out over time. So that the belt becomes white again, and they become the proverbial beginner even though they have already attained status as masters. And how that is considered a virtue -- to reassume beginner’s mind. What other stories did you find on your journey, that aren’t covered in The Rise, are triggered when you hear that?

SL: What does this idea of beginner’s mind mean? Finding a way to staying open to possibilities. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

SL: It makes me of T.S. Eliot’s idea about life and exploration. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To me, this speaks to the gift of beginner’s mind—that it is possible to retain a capacity for wonder. Some people do this by letting themselves stay fresh by acting as deliberate amateurs. I would have loved to write about this dynamic even more—how having something new to explore keeps you nimble, supple, young.

JM: I’ve noted that since I’ve joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (@KPCB) in Silicon Valley as their new Design Partner, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of technology entrepreneurs who seem to proudly share how they have failed a few times at making a successful company. What insights have you gained by talking with entrepreneurs and how they think about failure -- versus how an executive in a large corporation might consider failure. What’s different, and what’s the same?

SL: I should be asking you this question! Well, the risk-taking that is critical for entrepreneurship and innovation is the not necessarily the quality that will help you, say, get a promotion in a corporate environment. There’s evidence that both entrepreneurial and corporate environments can benefit from creating spaces—large or small—for people to have the freedom to take risks (and, inevitably, make mistakes). For example, the Mayo Clinic did this once by creating the “Queasy Eagle” award—honoring some patent ideas that didn’t quite reach full flight. In the eighteen years prior to this initiative, the Clinic had only generated thirty-six new ideas for patents in one particular field. Just over a year after the initiative, meant to honor near win, yet abandoned, efforts, there were 245 new ideas, many of which merited new patents.

SL: It’s also possible to carve out time to work as what I call a deliberate amateur. Two Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who isolated graphene have an exemplary, playful way of doing this. They have a practice of “Friday Night Experiments (FNEs),” times when the lab works on problems outside of the realm of their expertise. Many of them have failed, but when they have breakthroughs, they are of enormous proportion because they’ve been unlimited in their thinking. Out of all that the work that Geim and Novoselov’s lab has become know for—their Nobel Prize-winning discovery of graphene—the majority have come from this FNE practice.

JM: Given the rise (sic) of your book -- what do you hope might result from your own pursuit of literary success through a book that is themed around failure? What kind of failure are you seeing and experiencing with the book that profoundly excites you? What are the few elements of failure that you wouldn’t trade for anything when you take on your next popular book -- because I know for sure that you’ve got more than a few coming in your lifetime (smile).

SL: Thank you! Well, perhaps the only failure has been talking about The Rise in such a way that people know that it is not a self-help book! People tend to ask me a lot of questions about how to overcoming failure. I wrote this book not because I have all of the answers, but because I was as curious about them as the next person. The book is literary, not advice driven. Communicating that in a sound-bite media culture has been difficult.

SL: After the book launch for The Rise, I found myself itching to get back to work. I love talking about the book, but I’m eager to stay on a journey. I constantly want to stretch again. I love finding an idea that feels just out of reach and figuring out how, if I can possibly grasp it. Can I find a way to fly, run, thrust myself over the chasm and explore it? Will anyone else benefit from it if I do? My next book—on a very different topic—is making me try all over again.

There’s all kinds of risk-taking, so be sure you know which kind you’re taking.

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