sarah lewis wobi

Sarah Lewis at WOBI Leadership Barcelona

Sarah Lewis: Failure is critical for innovation

Last week was the WOBI World Leadership Forum in Barcelona and Aurum Speakers Bureau was invited to attend the second day of the event, on Friday.

After Juan Pablo Neira‘s great speech on how to be more creative and find new ways to innovate and a short coffee break, Sarah Lewis, Harvard professor and New York Times’ bestselling author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery took the stage. Sarah is a celebrated art historian who served under President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and has worked at Yale’s School of Art, the Tate Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And its trough art and her work interviewing some of the artists, top performing athletes and entrepreneurs that have changed the world that she’s studied the sources of creativity and how exactly works in our brains.

Sarah Lewis speaking at WOBI Barcelona


Sarah found that some of the most successful people in the planet, and in history, were often crediting their success to their past failures. Take Michael Jordan, one of the biggest sports legends in the world, who recalled that he failed more than 9,000 shots in his career and lost more than 300 games. Or take Thomas Edison, that said his famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work” when was trying to find the breakthrough that allowed him to invent the electric light bulb.

Failure allows learning, which allows innovation. Sarah believes there are 3 main characteristics which can be found in all these amazing people that changed the world:

  1. These individuals cared more for mastery than success
  2. They went against conventional wisdom and avoided groupthink
  3. They were extraordinarily gritty and tenacious BUT, knew always when to quit

What’s “Mastery” according to Sarah Lewis?

Sarah defines mastery a constant pursuit and beautifully framed it with the example of an archer. Hitting the bullseye once, is success. Mastery is knowing you can repeat that continuously. Now the difficulty is caring about not only about hitting the bullseye, but caring mostly about almost hitting our goals, about the process. In the Olympics we often see that the Bronze medallist is happier than the Silver one. Why? Because our mind is often thinking “what if” and what the 3rd place finisher sees near him is the 4th, no-medal place; while the 2nd place finisher plays in his mind what could have changed to win gold. That mindset is not healthy and instead we should see the near-win as positive and focus on the process that brought us there.

Andre Geim’s story

In science, a perfect example of how failure can get you to a break-through innovation is the story of Andre Geim, a scientist who in 2000 was a ridiculed by his peers by winning the Ig Nobel Prize of Physics (a parody of the real Nobel prizes, given to those who achieve something that at first make people laugh, then makes them think). Andre and his research partner had come up with an idea to create a safe space, in a fun way, in which new ideas, as absurd as those may sound, could be tested. And thus, Friday Night Experiments came to life, where they could test the most absurd theories without fear of being laughed at or mocked. And from one of those Friday nights, by eliminating layers and layers from carbon they ended up discovering a new material: Graphene. The discovery won them the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Innovation requieres maintaining the relentless curiosity of a child and to not be embarrassed to ask questions to colleagues and peers. Friday Nights Experiments created a safe haven that prevented shame, which allowed for a ground-breaking discovery. In a similar way, companies like Google allocate up to 20% of employee’s time to let them work on secret projects. They don’t need to disclose even what they’re working on, to create that safe environment that will allow innovation. Gmail, for instance, was one of those personal projects from one of the employees.

When we don’t have that safe space where we can innovate without being judged or mocked, we might become victims of peer pressure. The Asch Conformity experiment found out that up to 75% of people conform to the majority’s view, even in extreme cases when they deeply know they are wrong. Being afraid to face the group, the other employees at your company, your bosses or your colleagues, is a daunting task that kills innovation. Your brain can even trick you into thinking it’s you who got it wrong, not the others.

The importance of tenacity:

Sarah concluded by explaining that grit is a much better predictor of success than talent or IQ. She told the story of the inventor of the telegraph to illustrate it, Samuel Morse, who devoted 20 years of his life trying to become a successful painter to later devote another 20 years to invent the revolutionary instrument that would change communication. He realized when to quit, pivoted, and devoted again to a new cause. Did his goal change? No! He always wanted to be an innovator, a disruptor. Just his tactics and his way of achieving it did. We need to learn how to maintain our grit, even on the face of adversity and when we realize it’s time to try to reach our goals in a different way.

If you want more information about Sarah or some of our other speakers for your next event, please contact us.

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