On this episode of Dare to Lead
Join me for a conversation with Dr. Sarah Lewis for Part I of a two-part series on her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery. We talk about why the word “failure” doesn’t quite capture the often-transformative experience of falling and beginning again, the difference between success and mastery, and the power of setting audacious goals that are right outside our grasp.
Listen to the episode
The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, by Sarah Lewis
The gift of failure is a riddle: It will always be both the void and the start of infinite possibility. The Rise—part investigation into a psychological mystery, part an argument about creativity and art, and part a soulful celebration of the determination and courage of the human spirit—makes the case that many of the world’s greatest achievements have come from understanding the central importance of failure. Written over the course of four years, this exquisite biography of an idea is about the improbable foundations of a creative human endeavor.
An Inconvenient Truth, by Al Gore
Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and welcome to the Dare to Lead podcast. This is such a great conversation. Grab your journal, grab a pen and a piece of paper, you’re going to want to take notes on this one. It is somewhere between a full-on, geek-out kind of nerdriffic conversation and just wholeheartedness. And for me, personally, moving conversation with Dr. Sarah Lewis. So it’s a two-part series. This is Part One. We talk about her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. And Sarah and I talk about why the word “failure” doesn’t quite capture the often transformative experience of falling and beginning again. We also talk about the difference between success and mastery. And for me, this is so important because mastery is very important to me and not something we talk about enough. And we also talk about the power of setting audacious goals that are right outside our grasp. I cannot wait to bring you this conversation. I think you are going to love it. Dr. Sarah Lewis, it’s moving, it’s a moving conversation.
BB: So let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. She is an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, and the Department of African and African-American Studies. She’s the founder of the Vision & Justice Project. Sarah Lewis has published essays on race, contemporary art, and culture, and she’s got forthcoming publications, including a book on race, whiteness, and photography with Harvard University Press, a book on vision and justice with Random House, and an anthology of the work of Carrie Mae Weems with MIT Press. She also has an article focusing on the groundwork of contemporary arts in the context of Stand Your Ground Laws, which will be coming out in the Art Journal, the Winter of 2020, which we’re in right now. Dr. Lewis, in 2019, became the inaugural recipient of the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. She was granted this award to honor her for her body of work and “its direct positive impact on the life of African-Americans.”
BB: This is just a heartfelt, powerful conversation that really moved me. Super grateful you’re here. I am so excited to talk to you about your work, about The Rise. I have to start with this weird question. What is the adjective form of the word onomatopoeia? Do you know?
Sarah Lewis: I don’t. First of all, it’s such a thrill to be speaking to you, and I love that this is your opening question.
SL: That’s so great. Please tell me the answer, I don’t know.
BB: I don’t know, I think it’s onomatopoeic. Onomatopoeic. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know exactly what it is. But your book, The Rise, for me, as a creative, is whatever that word is. I think it’s onomatopoeic. It makes me feel like the creative process makes me feel. Reading it is the same swirl as that process for me. It’s very poetic and powerful in that way.
SL: Wow, thank you. Thank you so much. I want to know more about what you mean by that. I would love to hear more, but it means so much that it touched you in a profound way. Thank you. Thank you for that.
BB: Let me start with not just my favorite quote from the book, but one of my favorite quotes in life, and in fact, if you’ve seen me speak since The Rise came out, you’ve heard me quote Dr. Sarah Lewis. I’m going to read you a quote from your book that’s just, I think, amazing. “This book rarely uses the word failure, though it is at the heart of its subject. The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else, a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention, no longer the static concept of failure.”
SL: The fact that that quote is what you include in your presentations and gripped you means so much largely because your work, thinking about imperfection and vulnerability, fueled my process of writing The Rise more than, you know, than I’ve ever been able to tell you. And to do with the inability to describe the dynamism of improbable foundations, the failed foundations of the creative process, but the book resulted in this soulful journey through which I could try to articulate what we all as creatives undergo and know is a requisite part of the process, but oftentimes not what we want to really deal with. And failure is the approximation of the term, but it doesn’t quite get at it. So yes, I love that hard one set of sentences.
BB: You say that the word failure was not designed for us, but it was actually developed to assess credit worthiness in the 19th century. It was a term for bankruptcy, a seeming dead end force. Tell me about the origins of the word.
SL: So this project really began in thinking about what truly leads to path-breaking innovation in creativity and in entrepreneurship, in life, in many forms. And I wanted to think about the gifts of failure in that because it came up with every interview that I conducted and every study of any long gone but iconic figure that I could find. The term failure, though, is one that we use but it was never meant for us because it did only apply in the 19th century in America, in particular, to bankruptcy, which means that you come to a dead end, you can’t go on any longer. But over time, it became applied to human life, and it was a force fit effectively, it never fully can describe the human endeavor, because we never come to a full end until the end, right? And I discovered that while writing the book, this 19th century term for bankruptcy being failure, and it forced me to reconsider the term and then allowed me to understand why it is always slipping off the edges of our vision, why we always want another term for it. And so that’s part of the origin of it there.
BB: See, I’m already changed. We’re three minutes in and I’m like, “Oh my God, okay.” So let’s dig into this for a second. You write, “Perhaps a 19th century synonym comes closer, blankness, a poetic term for the wiping clean that this experience can provide, it hints too at the limitlessness that often comes next.” Tell me about blankness.
SL: Well, what animated the entire work was thinking about the expanded vistas that I saw coming from these failed circumstances in the lives of all these individuals. For those who are listening, I was taken by as maybe the most improbable example, seeing the transcript of Martin Luther King Jr, and seeing that he received his lowest grades in seminary in public speaking. How does that… It’s not possible. So he received a C plus, and then a C, transcript of As and Bs in public speaking, and he got worse from one semester to the next. And then, of course, went on to lead the nation with the power of his spoken truth. And as I look at those images of him on Washington Mall with that expanse around him, I often think about what shifted in his own horizon, what sort of new possibilities he might have seen, recognizing that that teacher did not understand his oratory gift effectively and labeled what was innovation as failure.
SL: So in the context of creativity, I think that blankness, that sense of an entirely new arena through which to define something that will perhaps be heralded, but at the time is seen as too new, too odd, to be embraced, as blankness. And so the term seems to be a more precise, I should say, approach to thinking about the dynamism of the creative process after failure. Now, the question becomes, how do you embrace and not feel terrified by the blankness of that expanse, the terror of the white page as a writer? The terror of the blank canvas can terrorize a painter. I use those examples because that’s a bit of how it feels, I think, to realize that the feedback you’ve received forces you to have to wipe clean your field of vision, your field of possibility, and re-imagine yourself anew.
BB: Okay. I want to try something out on you. It’s a theory I have about your construct of blankness.
BB: I could get teary eyed. So when I’ve read that in your book, I felt so seen. I felt like a secret to my success and a secret that I thought was just me had been captured by you on the page, because I’ve known a lot of failure, but there’s a part of me in the midst of failure that is excited and passionate about the blankness, about the starting over. I want to say a sentence, and I want to get you to say, “Maybe, maybe not, untrue.” When I look back on my own career, I think shame is the enemy of blankness, that you can’t seize the opportunity of blankness if you are belittling yourself about the failure.
SL: True, true, true, indeed. Absolutely, yes. I want to talk about shame and feelings of embarrassment around failure. Every sentence I put on the page resulted from personal process and realization as well, so the fact that you feel seen by it means so much, and that sentence also speaks to how I felt after failure as well. The shame piece is crucial, though, because it’s where people can get blocked or stopped in their process. When I finished writing The Rise, though, I should say, I realized that I was actually thinking through a set of paradoxes, and one of them does hover around the idea of shame. I focused on a number of traits, grit, for example. But in the book, I didn’t pay enough attention to the sort of suppleness of grit that’s required for endurance as one example.
SL: In the context of private domains, or rather I should say in the context of public work, I didn’t spend enough time thinking through on the page the way that I did in my process, the importance of privation for the creative process. And I mention that in the context of shame because it’s finding embryonic spaces through which to grow anew is crucial for processing these feelings of failure before they come to light as the public-celebrated product or platform or extraordinary set of programs. I was taken by this idea when I was interviewing these two Nobel prize-winning physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were shamed initially because they won the Ig Nobel award, an award given to scientists whose work is so outlandish and crazy, effectively, that they first kind of make you laugh and then they make you think. And no one has gone on to win an Ig Nobel award or Nobel Prize rather, after an Ig Nobel Award. No one. So they won this in 2000. It’s a prize that’s given out at Harvard University. They are roasted in front of their colleagues. [chuckle]
SL: And the process through which Andre Geim received that award was through the creation of these Friday night experiments, times where they would explore and innovate and go into other people’s domains of expertise. And they won the Nobel Prize through the same means, through the same process. And he talks about that in his Nobel Prize speech. But what those FNEs, that, as he calls it, do, is it shields them, even the postdocs in the lab, especially the students who need funding and approval, from the feelings of being wrong and of the shame associated with just asking outlandish questions, which is what they did in order to arrive at these innovative solutions. And so I’ve been thinking a lot, since writing that book, about how Friday night experiments, how this safe haven for risk-taking is requisite for any creative process so that we don’t feel the shame that comes from this journey.
BB: Do you think, given the way our culture works today and how quick we are to dismiss and cancel and ridicule, that the words that you wrote just, seems like yesterday, have taken on even new meaning? Like protect, protect, protect your work until you’re ready. Do you agree with that?
SL: I do. Again, it’s why I was mentioning the calibration piece. We do live in this public-facing, digital social media world, but for the creator, for the inventor, for the entrepreneur who wants to create something of true value and of meaning, that individual, that organization must focus on privation as well, must focus on protecting that work, and it’s a matter of finding the stage in which either scenario is appropriate, effectively. I think as a writer, we have to engage in that exercise on a daily basis. You might have in your life a few friends who you know you can show something to in its early stage, and they’re not going to make you feel badly about the errors, the typos, the lack of structure. There are some people who you know you cannot share that work with.
BB: That’s right.
SL: And what are you doing in that mental move? You’re protecting yourself. You understand the value of that protection. You understand what might happen, what sort of paralysis could come if you uncloak an embryonic idea, that sort of tender idea, too early. In the same way, I use that word embryonic deliberately to make vivid the fact that these ideas, that there is an analogy with how it is that we consider childlike development. We protect our own development at an early stage, we must do the same for the creative process. This is a timeless feature of this journey. As much as we develop technologically, you can’t push past the technology of the soul, of the heart, this is how we work.
BB: It’s interesting because it really speaks to me, as someone who mentors a lot of young PhD students, young writers, it really speaks to me about another point that you make in the book, which is, I cannot convince the folks that I mentor, who are interested in success, to protect their work, I can only convince the folks who are interested in mastery to protect their work. [chuckle] It’s true.
SL: There it is, there it is.
BB: Because they see a longer game.
SL: That’s right.
BB: Tell me about the difference between success and mastery.
SL: This distinction unlocked everything for me. Simply put, success is focusing on the arrival and mastery is focusing on the reach, on this ever onward, almost, the creative process. I had this made vivid for me when I went to watch the set of Archer, as I write about in The Rise, and they’re this near-Olympic caliber team up at Columbia University, all women, as it turns out. Men try out, but women are the best, apparently, there. So as I watch them, one archery practice, they were in this pursuit, hitting seven, then nine, then eight, then the bullseye, and then off the target completely, the distinction between the two, they weren’t stopping once they were consistently hitting that bullseye and just going home. For three hours, they were engaged in assessing that gap between where they are and where they want to go.
SL: And I saw their different tactics, I saw how they would stop and meditate, and I was thinking through how rare it was to see that distinction in action between success and mastery. I love that you see that in the students you mentor or the individuals that you mentor. It matters, and for those listening who aren’t in those positions, I would just ask them to consider any work of art you see, even by, say, Paul Cézanne. Paul Cézanne exemplifies this distinction. He didn’t sign 90% of his paintings, he only thought 10% realized his goal to approximate nature in paint. But the 90% that didn’t created the propulsion, constituted the near win, enough to animate and propel him onward, effectively, and that’s what’s happening with those who are focused on the journey of mastery. They care about that near win, they care about that reach, effectively, and it means that they’re living with this divine dissatisfaction, you might say, of this eternal process, and it creates a momentum that sustains their lives.
BB: I want to read from The Rise for a second, if you don’t mind.
SL: Oh, sure.
BB: You write, “Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate—perfectionism—which is 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.”
SL: Yeah, that’s why Michaelangelo said, “Lord, grant that I desire more than I can accomplish.” He understood this idea of the onward journey, the constant journey. It’s not that peak point of arrival, it is this ever onward almost, yeah.
BB: My team and I always read these books together and then we have the best book club in the world talking about what the podcast is going to sound like and look like and where we want to go, and we just all loved this quote: “To reach an audacious goal, we sometimes benefit from having it lie just beyond our grasp.” Setting those type of goals, these audacious goals that lie beyond our grasp, is that a signifier to you of the pursuit of mastery versus success?
SL: I would say so. And it’s a signifier of other things as well. I love the term audacious as opposed to ambitious in effect, [chuckle] because audacious seems to suggest that you’re in a conversation with the universe in effect, to see if you can challenge the possible. And that’s the thrill of life, to kind of go past yourself. You’re making me call to mind this image that also propelled thinking about The Rise. I remember actually being in high school, this track meet, and there was this girl who was running so fast that she literally outran herself, her desire to move faster was more than her body could handle and she…
SL: Fell down. But she went on to become this extraordinary track star. And there was an audacity in that moment. I’ll never forget it. So that’s what propels that journey of mastery. Writing The Rise for me was that audacious act, too. I was a graduate student at Yale when I wrote that book, I was meant to also be writing, and I did, my dissertation, but I was compelled and excited by this idea to write. I hadn’t written anything on that level before, and it wasn’t a book that I imagined leading to a conversation like this. A book I wrote because I wanted to save my own life with it, in effect, and I was just thrilled that it went on to actually reach people, but never expected that it would. The writing of it was really the nourishment, and everything else has been the sort of dessert, an icing on the cake, and such a surprise.
BB: I write to save my own life, too, and I’m so glad when it is helpful or instructive to others, but after that, like you said, it’s gravy, right?
SL: Yeah, completely. And then it does other work in the world that we can’t expect.
BB: Question. Tell me about your conversation with Al Gore after he lost the presidency, and the Churchill quote. Do you remember this story?
SL: Oh, you’re good. [chuckle] No one has asked me about this, ever.
BB: Because I want to get your take on it. So you brought up the Churchill quote that success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. And you write that Al Gore laughed because he knew the quote, but then he said, nodding, with a pause, “Yes, but Churchill later admitted that while the idea was true, success has a damn good disguise.”
SL: That’s right. That is what he said. Yeah. [chuckle] That was a powerful conversation. It took a ton of preparation and delicacy and care. It was a conversation that took place at then William Morris Endeavor’s Brain Spa. [chuckle] And I interviewed him as a keynote for that. It was powerful to have him reflect on that moment, but I also think that what I couldn’t convey on the page was how in terms of just the kind of kinesthesiology of the event, I could see him in his own power in a way that I know we all would have benefited from in a certain sense. And it speaks to what happens when you are engaged in an endeavor that’s larger than not just yourself or even your generation, but the world in the present moment. He was thinking, and still is, of course, about climate change. The urgency of that. And it shifted a sense of risk taking and of his own pursuit. So his leadership style on that stage with me, it felt very different than the candidate, than the individual that I met through media years prior.
BB: I always think there’s such a risk to having to contain the Friday night experiment in us, that part of our life, our personality. We all have a Friday night experiment in us, right? To have to contain that for culturally imposed reasons. Do you know what I mean? Like just when he lost the presidency and he could step fully into his creativeness and his passion, we did see someone different.
SL: We did.
SL: Yeah. No, that’s right. Ultimately, I think the creative process does force us to live in two worlds, in a way. I was thinking about this. I gave the commencement speech at Yale School of Art last year, and I was just thinking about that fact. On the one hand, it does force a consideration of external critique and praise, but there is this other world that is driven by passions and aims that are wholly your own, that does create a kind of alternate space, even reality. And I say that in the context of Al Gore, because his new platform, focusing on climate change, was brought about by a film that no one would have thought would have been successful. It’s effectively a PowerPoint presentation. [chuckle]
BB: Right. Right.
SL: He was convinced he had enough conviction, and this is what happens, in that journey of mastery, that it would still land, despite all conventional wisdom, there’s no documentarian that will tell you that a PowerPoint will make a good documentary. [chuckle] It did.
BB: And you’re talking about, of course, An Inconvenient Truth, the most watched PowerPoint in the world, I guess, at this point.
SL: Exactly, exactly. So that was a powerful conversation. I wanted to write about it more, but there are limits, of course, to the way that I could do so, but that felt appropriate and allowed.
BB: Is it possible to have long-term success without mastery?
SL: That’s a rich question. A couple of things. Repeat success can become dysfunctional persistence.
BB: Wait, say that again. Say that again. I probably need to hear that. Say that again.
SL: Repeat success can become dysfunctional persistence.
BB: What does that mean?
SL: So I went to Angela Duckworth with this idea, and she is known for her research on grit, the ability to withstand distractions in pursuit of your goal, over not just years, but decades. And I wanted to understand how you can get out of the rut of dysfunctional persistence, because oftentimes, when you’re very gritty, when you are focused on success, you can convince yourself that your tactics are always appropriate.
BB: For sure.
SL: Right? No matter the conditions or circumstances. And she pointed me back to the Arts, as the way out of this dark side of grit. The other reason why repeat success can be deadening to the creative process is that it doesn’t allow for the child-like wonder that leads to innovation in the end. This makes me think of why I was so interested in this little note that Albert Einstein responded to. A six-year-old girl wrote to him and she was told that she was below average in math, and so she wrote to Albert Einstein for advice. And he said to her, “Do not worry about your difficulties in math. I can assure you that mine are still greater.” Brilliant! Summarizes this issue. He got it. Despite that acclaim, despite his capacity, in fact, because of it, he is encountering greater difficulties to see around his blind spots, to look at problems anew. It’s, again, what brought me to the FNEs as an example of how to get around that. So, we all have to find tactics to avoid this.
BB: So, I am very aligned with mastery. It’s really important in my life. And I have to say that sometimes I feel like my successes are the greatest threat to derailing me from my pursuit of mastery, because I have to fight the risk of protecting and becoming more of what people want from me, rather than pursuing my own mastery. Does that make sense at all?
SL: Absolutely. Oh, I love this conversation. I don’t want it to stop. We’re getting at the very reason why I wrote the book. I needed to be my own Rise therapist as well, I realized at a certain point. The old adage, success begets success, is what we’re deconstructing here. Is that true? Well, yes, and a huge fat no as well. Because it does threaten what should be and is the larger aim. Look, I think if you go back to any generation and consider what theorem, what innovation, what artistic work stands to be celebrated, it isn’t a success, it is a work of mastery.
BB: Oh my God.
SL: You know…
BB: Yes, keep going!
SL: And I say that also because, to take it even further, I think if there’s a reason why we celebrate the creative arts, it’s because we, on some deep level acknowledge the difficulty of that inner work required for that individual. To know that success doesn’t just beget success, to be willing to have taken a risk that might have meant being seen as absolutely outside of society because of how innovative an idea was, or public critique from critics. All of these things are part of the process of innovation and mastery. They are not part of the process of success. Success gives you all kinds of cozy comforts that can make you feel so satisfied, that you might not continue to innovate at all. You can continue to do what you’ve been doing and feel just fine about that. So it does constitute a threat to mastery. The other paradox of this is that what some could see as a success, when brought to public light, can, for you, just be that near-win that propels the journey of mastery.
SL: The same thing, say, a book, can be successful, can on all kinds of levels, financially, critically, and so on, but can in your mind have come short enough to drive you to the next thing. That duality of the same object, the same endeavor, it is what I think makes us all need Rise therapists as creators, because we are living in those two worlds at that moment. I mean, I’ll give you another example, Franz Kafka, anyone listening, we now celebrate his writing and his works, but he saw all of his works as such near-wins that he wanted them all burned upon his death, everything. Manuscripts, diaries, letters, and he asked his friend to do so. His friend didn’t. Some friend, right? That’s now the reason we have all the works we do by Kafka. So that duality is really what we have to also contend with. In this moment, we’re kind of looking at the inner world of the creative artist, and it’s a complicated terrain, but one I do think that we can access when we make that distinction between success and mastery.
BB: I wasn’t supposed to write Braving the Wilderness, it wasn’t in my contract with my publisher, but I just saw this cultural fracturing of our country, and so I said, “I need to write this. I need to see if I can apply my research and the things that I’ve learned to what’s happening culturally.” And I think a lot of my editors were thinking through a lens of success, and I remember thinking, “This is probably not going to be successful.” In fact, I wrote this book like four years ago, and I wrote about my support for Black Lives Matter in the book and why it was important, and the whole concept of dehumanization. And I used really weird comparisons. I’m a Blue Grass person, and I love this kind of Blue Grass that’s called High Lonesome.
BB: And I wrote about our country being in High Lonesome right now, and I was finished with the book and I said, “I don’t know if I can do this,” and my publisher was also like, “We’re not sure this will be successful.” And I talked to this friend of mine Shauna, and she said, “Listen, I think you just need to pull a U2 right now.” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, because I’m a huge U2 fan, the band. And she said, “Every other album for them is creative investigation, and they use that as fuel for their next commercial album, but you will never take away from them the opportunity,” because I think in your language it would be their pursuit of mastery. It was so powerful to me to think I can do this on my route to mastery, but I really have to silence the success gremlins.
SL: It resonates with me so much, and I’m so glad that you found the… And also through companionship, oftentimes it’s with fellowship, conversation… the support you needed to pursue what was integral and right and essential for your process. I mean, you’re making me think about what was so compelling for me about that, The Black List in Hollywood.
SL: This is such a vivid example of how success is being determined by gatekeepers of all kinds, to their own detriment. So Franklin Leonard created The Black List in 2005 when he was working for Leonardo DiCaprio trying to just green light scripts to become successful films. He was becoming the same person as your editor, right? Saying, “We don’t think this will be commercially successful because it doesn’t conform to past metrics of success.” And he himself is creative enough to know that that wasn’t going to be a rewarding way of living, so he created this document that seemed very simple. He asked his colleagues to anonymously, through this anonymous email account, to state the screenplays that they really loved. And when he received these kind of 90 answers and he tabulated this chart to indicate what people had stated, the findings really stunned Hollywood when it went viral that year in 2005, and people were listing screenplays that no one was advocating for in public, in these exact meetings through which we were meant to make creative decisions.
SL: It’s the worst possible scenario to make a creative decision. And screenplays or things like “Juno” and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and later on “The King’s Speech,” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” The films that have gone on to win all kinds of awards and be commercially successful were not ones people were advocating for in private, for the same reasons that you’ve just gone on to silence the critic that’s only determined by “success.” And there are all kinds of reasons that that Black List was successful, we talk about them, but it’s definitely an example of how the creative process can be stifled by the conformity to the metrics that any creative industry is using, again, to their own detriment, for success. Well, how does this measure up to what we know?
BB: So powerful. Okay, so I have to ask you this question. I rarely do this on these interviews, but… Will you do a Part Two with me?
SL: Oh, I’d love that. Oh my gosh. I’m so honored. Yes, of course.
BB: Yes, because I want to get into some more of these concepts, but I want to be respectful of your time, but I want to talk about some really important parts of your work, aesthetic force, surrender, things I really want to talk about. So let me see your pinky on Zoom. Pinky promise that we’ll do a Part Two. Okay.
SL: Yeah, it would be my pleasure. I’d love to. Thank you.
BB: Okay. So let’s jump into… Are you ready for the rapid fire?
SL: Yes. Ready.
BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
SL: Embracing the truest part of yourself and finding power from it.
BB: Everything she says is like a tattoo. Okay. What is something people often get wrong about you?
SL: I’ve found that I have to learn to live with the gift of being underestimated, I’d say. I’m a young woman, I look younger than I am, I’m a black woman, a woman of color, and I do work that is often the very opposite of what people would expect I would do, I’m a professor at Harvard, [chuckle] and I teach, of all things, history of art and architecture and African-American Studies and American Studies. So if you’re just going to see me, say, on the Amtraks when we can take them more freely one day, or planes, I think people kind of get everything wrong about me at first glance. But I actually kind of love that. It’s such an eye-opening experience. [chuckle]
BB: I’ll just say to anyone out there, underestimate Sarah Lewis at your own peril. Okay.
BB: What is one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that is so remarkable that you need to share it with us, or so crappy that you need to warn us?
SL: One crappy piece of advice I’d say I received was to spend the first 90 days listening in the context of leadership in entering a new environment. And I would reframe it to say, spend those 90 days listening to your inner compass and your inner voice to determine why you got there in the first place, don’t silence yourself in that sense. I’d reframe that often given advice.
BB: That’s really powerful. Really awful for women, and probably more awful for women of color.
SL: That’s right.
BB: What is one stereotype or myth of leadership that we just need to let go of?
SL: I believe in the power of narrative so strongly, and I think the narratives that have centered our instantaneous sort of acceptance of leadership to come in certain forms, oftentimes, gendered and raced, need to go away. I think that’s the main one. I can offer many others, but once we dis-enthrall ourselves from these narratives about who can lead, who’s the best type of leader, oftentimes white men, for example, we will all be better off. We all have extraordinary leadership capacities, and our society is being robbed of these gifts because of that narrative adherence.
BB: I think that’s right. And it’s still so powerful and prevalent.
BB: What is your best leadership quality?
SL: My best leadership quality is that of discernment. As an educator, I think discernment being the ability to see what might grow where, to sense out the possible even if it’s not presented as such, so that might be it.
BB: God. I have to say that I use the serenity prayer a lot. I’m a big praying person.
SL: Yeah, same here. Yeah.
BB: And in the end, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can.” And I always say. “The wisdom, grace, and discernment to know the difference.” I pray for discernment a lot.
SL: Beautiful. Oh, that’s beautiful.
BB: Discernment is a skill set.
SL: It is. It is.
BB: Okay. A harder question maybe. What is the hard leadership lesson that the universe keeps putting in front of you that you have to keep learning and unlearning and relearning?
SL: The biggest lesson is knowing what is given for me to do. Oh my gosh, Brené, I practically lost my own life from trying to do everything, scheduling every part of myself when I need to be writing or doing the technology to get everything up on Canvas, the platform we use for teaching, when the TFs [teaching fellow] can do that. So what’s given for me to do is really what I needed to get clear about, and that came along with learning that it was appropriate for me to ask for the help that was needed, research assistants and all of that. But there is something more spiritual in this as well, if we can go there.
SL: When I say what is given for me to do, I don’t mean what’s being given to me to do by an abstract boss, which in the university doesn’t really work that way. I’m talking about what I feel I have been given to do by the all that is, by the beyond, by God, if you call it God. And by that I mean what’s my soul mission?
SL: If I’m here to write, that’s how I need to be spending my days. I don’t need to be the best person ever figuring out how to build the bookshelf or go grocery shopping for everything I need. I need to focus on what I’m given to do, and men have been doing that for a long time, feeling entitled to focus in that way. I think as a woman, it was harder for me. And I think once I committed to that and felt that I was in a conversation with God about that, it became easier to honor what I then realized was not just a priority I was giving myself, but was maybe a larger kind of request coming from the beyond.
BB: I actually believe that the hand of divinity is maybe the only hand strong enough to say stop and no to the things that we take on out of our acculturation.
SL: That’s right.
BB: Yeah, it’s so powerful. Okay.
SL: Yeah, yeah.
BB: What’s one thing that you’re very excited about right now?
SL: Oh gosh, so I have three books coming out in the next two years, all of which focus on aesthetic force and creativity and racial justice, I would say, and those are exciting to me. In terms of the pandemic, there’s an inner probing that’s happened, I think it’s actually forced people to find their safe haven, actually, for that risk-taking that we’ve talked about, by dent of the impact of social isolation. But more than that, the life and death stakes of the pandemic, and I’ve had a number of friends, colleagues, mentors die because of the pandemic, has really pushed us into a reckoning with how we want to more fully live and what we want to leave behind to make the world more beautiful. And it’s also slowed us down, I would say, it’s that deceleration, I think, is at least for me, a way to identify what truly lets me remain excited about life. To get to the heart of the question, it’s to do with those big things that the creative process, the books that are coming, but I find that I’m just as excited about having spent time under my favorite tree right next to my house and seeing how the leaves have changed and the glorious colors and all these things I never would have let myself schedule time to experience really in the way that I do now in a constant, concerted, and daily way, so it’s been revelatory, to say the least, I think, living during this period of time.
BB: A great mourning and a great awakening at the same time, it’s a lot to hold, isn’t it?
SL: It is, it is.
BB: Okay, one thing that you’re really grateful for.
SL: I’ve been holding off on saying this the entire time in this rapid fire in a way. I’m grateful for life in a quite literal sense. I had an experience of living through this near death car collision a couple of months ago. I’m so grateful to be here with you, Brené, I cannot even tell you, and that’s maybe for Part Two. But the divine revelations that came in that process, the conversations with the beyond that did take place in that car, effectively, the fact that I walked out alive of this burning car that was completely totaled, it was a no-fault collision, had a hydroplaning out of control vehicle on the highway, just made me so grateful for the fact that I am with no broken bones, sitting here able to do what I love, nearly miraculously. If the airbags hadn’t deployed, even the side air bags, not just the front, I didn’t even know there were side air bags in these cars, I wouldn’t be here with you, not today. And people talk about going through difficult experiences and not wanting to put up with things. I will tell you my filter now is “Is what I’m going through or doing worth having crawled out of a burning car to experience,” truly. [chuckle]
BB: Wow, yes.
SL: I mean, talk about saving your own life and that. So I’m grateful for life on a quite literal level. It’s more so than the pandemic, I think, that experience is what changed everything.
BB: Wow, it’s got to change your boundaries when you’ve lived through a miracle.
SL: Absolutely. Oh gosh, yeah, I’ll never forget being on that highway. This good Samaritan came and really took care of everything, I didn’t even have to talk with the police or anything, took care of everything, and I remember in that moment sort of feeling that sense of connection between all human beings, if you would, stop and take the time and see that I needed help, despite the fact that I didn’t have physical injuries. And I remember seeing all these cars rubber-necking and then driving by and thinking, “Do you know just how precious your life is?” You just come so close, because the car hit the concrete divider on the highway, so it was clear to me as I was colliding into it that if the airbags didn’t deploy, I was not going to live. And so that sense of just the preciousness of life, it nearly brings me to tears every time I think about it. And I don’t often let myself, because of course, there’s the process of undoing the trauma of that, but…
BB: Yes, of course.
SL: But the beauty is just what it has taught about how precious indeed this life really is. I don’t mean to go on and on about it, we can talk more.
BB: No, I think… How much time is the right amount of time to dedicate to a miracle, like come on. And one of the things I really… There’s so many things I love about you and your work, but one of them is you have a contagious sense of awe and wonder around what’s important and beautiful.
SL: Thank you.
BB: Yeah. And that story is awe-inspiring and beautiful, so thank you for sharing it with us.
SL: I will give your listeners one other piece.
SL: Everything that they say about near-death experiences is true, you do see that white, you do see your life before you. And I was stunned in retrospect to recognize that what I saw before me was not relief from no longer having to live through the pandemic. It wasn’t that I said “Thank God for not having to deal with X, Y, or Z.” It was a very crystalline clear presentation of what I wanted to live for. And it included what I described to you that the books that are coming. I was sort of presented with these pictures of the future effectively. Laura Lynne Jackson is so great on all of this. I could talk about her as well. And that image will never leave me, that’s also made me wonder whether we let ourselves kind of wonder enough about what’s truly driving our lives and what really is at the marrow and at the heart of it. So yes, we’re living through this intense period, but the fact that I had no sense of excitement about leaving the difficult circumstances gave me a really more acute sense of just all that we should be spending our time focusing on, which is just the gift of this, the fact of it being a gift.
BB: You just laid a really important gift at our feet, I am going to bend down and open it. I think that a lot of us say things flippantly about tapping out of this year. And I just want to go on record here that I do not want to tap out, that I am so grateful and excited for the people I love, the people who love me, and the work that I get to do, so I appreciate you opening that door for us. You didn’t push it through it, but you certainly opened it up and gave us a smile and a wave to think about it.
SL: Thank you, Brené. Absolutely. This year is preparing us potentially for our full destiny in a way that maybe no other kind of joyous year could’ve. There’s a gift in it.
BB: That’s right.
BB: Okay. We asked you for five songs that were really important to you. Do you know what those are?
SL: I do. I do.
BB: Can you tell us your five? I can read them for you. Wynton Marsalis, “Devotional, Abyssinian Mass,” D’Angelo, “Spanish Joint,” Stevie Wonder, “As,” Mos Def, “Umi Says,” Esperanza Spalding, “I Adore You.” In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape tell us about Sarah Lewis?
SL: That buoyancy, hope, and joy are the keys to creative endurance.
BB: So beautiful. Dr. Sarah Lewis. Man, I am just blown away. I have some kind of proof from all the producers listening that we have pinky promised a Part Two.
SL: [chuckle] Yes.
BB: Next time, we’re going to talk about… This is like on the TV trailers. On the next episode of Brené Brown and Sarah Lewis on The Rise, we’re going to talk about the concept of surrender, we’re going to talk about your grandpa, we’re going to talk about amateur pursuits and the importance of those, and we’re going to talk about the riddle of Samuel Morse.
SL: Beautiful. I’m excited to speak about all of those topics, they’re crucial. And this for me has just been such an honor. It’s such a pleasure. I’ve learned so much from your work over the years, and it felt as if I was sort of writing in a way along side you, as much as I was learning from you, but this meeting has sort of defied my own imagination about how we could connect about our work and I’m just enormously grateful, so…
BB: Me, too. Thank you so much.
SL: Yeah. Yeah, thank you.
BB: I hope this conversation was meaningful for you, I know it just really some shifted things inside me in an important way. Part Two, we’re going to jump into more topics. We’re going to talk about a word that’s hard for me, because I don’t always understand what people mean by it, but a word that I think might make my life better, which is surrender, and the role that surrendering plays in the creative process. We’re going to talk about aesthetic force, the role of beauty and change. I just can’t wait. You can find Dr. Lewis online on Twitter at @sarahelizalewis. So it’s Sarah with an H. S-A-R-A-H. Eliza, E-L-I-Z-A. Lewis, L-E-W-I-S. She is also on Instagram at @sarahelizabethlewis1. Her websites are www.sarahelizabethlewis.com, and www.visionandjustice.org. Over on Unlocking Us, another just moving podcast with Priya Parker on The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, which is such a timely conversation for right now.
BB: Alright, friends, I appreciate you being here. In addition to staying awkward, brave, and kind, which is our mantra in this community, I’m really wishing you the power of a strong back, a soft front, and a wild heart, I think we need it right now. I will see you next week. Dare to Lead is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, and produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy productions. And the sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music is by The Suffers. The song that you’re hearing is called “Take Me To The Good Times.”
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