Last May while on my trip to Nicaragua, I was having a long conversation on a lazy breezy warm afternoon with one of the group members, Cecilia, at the local surf shack. We were discussing Man Meets Goat and my personal journey over the past few years taking risks and learning to compete. It made Cecilia think about the book she was reading at the moment called “The Rise” by Sarah Lewis. Later that day she brought her copy of the book to dinner for me to take a look at. The author’s name sounded so familiar and it turned out I had seen her TED Talk and even blogged about it. Lewis spoke about the importance of the “near win” in our lives as a both a learning point but also motivation to continue striving for greatness.
Way too many months later, I finally have finished reading “The Rise”. It is very well written with a flowery prose that feels more like an extension of Lewis’s speech rather than a traditional tome. The through line of her narrative is the pursuit of mastery. She opens up the book with a prologue about attending archery practice with the women’s team at Columbia University. There she witnessed these athletes practice shot after shot as they aimed to not just hit the bullseye once, but to hit it over and over. Their mastery of archery will never truly be complete as there are so many obstacles to overcome (i.e. technique, wind, speed, angle, etc.) and so perfection is always just out of reach.
Throughout the narrative Lewis uses a wide range of human endeavors to illustrate her thesis. She speaks about Paul Taylor, a famous modern dance choreographer, Ben Saunders, an explorer trying to cross the North Pole, Samuel Morse, who despite his success with telegraph dedicated his life to his art, and many more.
Lewis highlights through all of these examples the importance of grit. But she also recognizes the role that failure plays in our lives and also surrender. One of the highlights in the story of Ben Saunders many attempts to reach the North Pole is his acceptance of what we can and cannot change in our lives. There are sometimes rocks in the middle of our path. We can either complain and blame the rock for not being able to move forward or we can force ourselves to adapt, create and be flexible enough to learn new skills and talents so that we can climb over the rock.
The book drifts from sport to art to even science. Based on a chapter in her book, Sarah Lewis explains in this short video the value of being a deliberate amateur who experiments, explores and plays:
Since finishing the book, I have already lent it onto one friend who is working with people in recovery and helping them understand the concept of mastery in our lives. I have also recommended it to my yoga instructor as the stories seem analogous to the practice on the mat of constantly working on a pose.
Lewis alludes to the painting that under close inspection reveals layers upon layers of paint from the artist’s unstoppable pursuit of mastery. Our lives are like that painting if we allow ourselves to keep adding new layers as we search for individual greatness.