My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.
- Mizuta Masahide
I just read a deep book on success, failure, and mastery – The Rise, by Sarah Lewis. It begins with that quote, which I love. My barn has burned down at least a couple of times, and the moon has always given me new light for what I needed to build next.
The Rise is one of those books that you have to read more than once, and ponder, and review. But of course, as C. S. Lewis once said, if a book isn’t worth reading twice, it wasn’t worth reading once.
We live in a time when success is almost defined as celebrity, or status, or excessive wealth. Sarah Lewis helps us to reorient our thinking around the concept of mastery, and the process that develops it. And it’s the process that seems to be her real interest, because the process of growing in mastery of anything inevitably involves uncertainty, courage, failure, persistence, and struggle. We’ve demonized failure, when we should understand that it can actually be one of the higher angels of progress. Lewis tells story after story that show this. It’s hard to feel deep satisfaction in our work, or in our lives, unless we take on difficult challenges and take our lumps as we fight our way forward. Certainly, we should work with joy – that’s something I’ve always urged. But we haven’t really understood joy until we’ve reconciled it with life’s struggles. Otherwise, what we mistake for joy is just a superficial giddiness. Authentic joy, deep joy, can sustain us in the battles of life, and it is precisely those battles that tear down and take away whatever superficialities are blocking us from the real thing.
Lewis writes about the great masters in any field and how they think about challenge and failure, and then gives it a personal twist when she says: “Many of the things most would avoid, these individuals had turned into an irreplaceable advantage. I still remember a shudder when I sensed a knowing as sure as fact – that I might only truly become my fullest self if I explored and stayed open to moving through daunting terrain.”
Life is supposed to be a series of adventures, and adventures by their very nature can be quite daunting. They involve uncertainty, fear, risk, and often pain. But they also bring our best hope at becoming what we’re capable of being and experiencing the fulfillment that alone accompanies the quest for our own personal forms of success.
Lewis says that, “The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” The beauty of it is that there is a sense in which it’s never quite attained, in its idealistic perfection. And yet, those whom we rightly call masters are just much farther along the curve, more advanced in their adventures, than is common to see.
She quotes Michelangelo as having prayed, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish,” which, in modern times, would strike many as heresy. Aren’t we supposed to accomplish more than we could possibly have desired? Our modern icons and titans of success have surely achieved more than they ever could have dreamed. Isn’t that our model?
The paradox easily melts away, because no one goes to places they haven’t even dreamed unless they’re always hoping and striving and looking for that next adventure, that unexpected opportunity, that one more thing as yet untried. And, in the end, it’s not about celebrity, or status, or financial wealth – it’s about a form of wealth that goes far beyond any of that, and is to be found only in the pursuit of our proper forms of mastery.
I may be writing more about Lewis and her book here at TomVMorris.com in the coming days. I'm still living with it, which is what you should do with a truly good book. Come visit and reflect with me.