The women of the Columbia University archery team stepped out of their van on a cold spring afternoon with a relaxed focus; one held a half-eaten ice cream cone in her right hand and a fistful of arrows with yellow fletching in her left; another sported a mesh guard over her shirt, on top of her breast as protection from the tension line of the bow. Baker Athletics Complex, the university’s sporting fields at the northern tip of Manhattan, seemed to have a set of carefree warriors on its grounds.
A man who maintains the property never thought they would arrive. Maybe he was new, because I asked where the archery team would practice and he looked at me quizzically. He didn’t believe that archery was a real Columbia team sport. It was understandable. I had arrived early and the targets were not yet up. Releasing arrows at up to 150 miles per hour aimed at targets seventy-five yards away means safety issues for all around, so the archery team doesn’t practice next to any other. Mastery of this high-precision sport stays largely out of sight.
Coach Derek Davis drove up with the archers and greeted me with his elbow leaning against the gray van’s driver’s side window. His silvery-white dreadlocks hung past his shoulders, covered under a blue patterned bandana that matched his Columbia University archery sweatshirt. He struck me as a composite fit to match this clan: gregarious and at ease, yet focused. On the phone a few days earlier, he had told me that he first picked up the sport as a casual hobby at his wife’s insistence in the late 1980s (“It was safer than pool and didn’t involve alcohol”). He has led the varsity and intramural club
teams since 2005 as one-part biomechanical expert, one-part yogi—a university sage fit for ancient warfare turned sport.
The young women smiled and sized me up a little, then passed as I stood beside the chain-link fence entrance to their designated turf. One threw away her melting cone and joined the others who were unpacking the gear from the van’s trunk. They spoke not with words, but by exchanging numbers, their ideal scores or degrees to position themselves to hit their targets.
The women were preparing for an upcoming Nationals competition.1
(There are no men on this varsity team, only at the intramural level of play.) I watched as they carefully set down their compound and recurve bows—like those used at the Olympics, with tips that bend away from the archer—then drew and let loose arrows that curved and fell out of sight as they hit the round target face. Davis didn’t hover, but stood a good distance behind them, perhaps assessing who might need support. Spread out, farther off at the edge of the turf, were toolkits filled with spools, pliers, wrenches, hammers, and nails.
Two archers lined up to shoot. Only one wanted to know her score. Davis was looking with his binoculars downrange, the length of nearly two tennis courts from their location, as one archer let her first arrow fly. I could just hear the sound of a whip cracking the air.
“Seven at six o’clock.”
“Nine at two o’clock.”
Her shots weren’t grouping yet.
“Ten, way high.”
After the next arrow sailed, there was no sound.
“No. Don’t look at that one!” she said, shifting her feet, dropping her bow. “I don’t even think it hit the target.”
“Yeah,” Davis confirmed, “I don’t even see it.”
As I stood behind her, trying to place myself in her position, I couldn’t imagine how even one had hit the target. Every archer
calculates the arc of a rise (the drop and horizontal shifts of an arrow’s path), a trajectory only they can predict. Before even accounting for wind speeds, there is always some degree of displacement that happens when the arrow leaves the bow at a skew angle from the target so that the fletching doesn’t hit the string upon release. This is how the arrow is crafted. If you are right-handed in archery, you’ll aim slightly to the left to hit the bull’s-eye. This skill means focusing on your mark, the likely shape of an arrow’s arched flight, and the many variables that can knock it off all at once. The most precise archers call this process of dual focus split vision.
It also requires constant reinvention—seeing yourself as the person who can hit a ten when you just hit a nine, as an archer who just hit a seven, but can also hit an eight. Archery is one of the sports that gives instantaneous, precise feedback. It puts athletes into rank order of how they measure up against their seconds-younger selves. Archers constantly deal with the “near win”: not quite hitting the mark, but seconds later, proving that they can.
If an archer’s aim is off by less than half a degree, she won’t hit her target. “Just moving your hand by one millimeter changes everything, especially when you’re at the further distances,” said Sarah Chai, a recent Columbia graduate and former cocaptain of the varsity archery team.2
From the standard seventy-five-yard distance from the target, the ten-ring, the bull’s-eye, looks as small as a matchstick tip held out at arm’s length. Hitting the eight-ring means piercing a circle the size of the hole in a bagel from 225 feet away. And that’s while holding fifty pounds of draw weight for each shot.
It’s a taxing pursuit. Well into a three-hour practice, two of the women were lying down, their backs on the turf behind the shooting line, staring up at the sky. Three hours per day of meditative focus, trying to find what T. S. Eliot would call “the still point of the turning world,” requires a unique, sustained intensity.3
Living on a landscape where an infinitesimal difference in degree leads to
a massive difference in outcome is what makes an archer an archer. It means learning to have the kind of precision that we find in the natural world—like that of a bee’s honeycomb or the perfect hexagonal shape of the rock formations on Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. When archers start getting good, with scores consistently above 1350 (out of 1440), they taper down, shoot less, and attend to their concentration, breathing techniques, meditation, and visualization. One teammate, overwhelmed with exams, still made it up to Baker’s fields because the focus she gets from archery calms her about everything. “When I was studying abroad, I was going crazy without having it,” she said. Without the regimen, she felt irritated all the time.
I stayed at the archery practice for three hours. Someone watching me might have wondered why. For all the thrill of discovering a new sport, it was, admittedly, interminable. I hadn’t brought binoculars, and it is hard to concentrate for three hours on what is right in front of you but not easily seen. It was also a cold day, but I stayed to witness what I was starting to feel I might never glimpse: “gold fever,” or “target panic,” as it’s called—what happens when an archer gets good, even too good, compared to her expectations, and starts wanting the gold without thinking about process. In extreme cases, it means that one day she is hitting the bull’s-eye, the next day her arrows could end up in the parking lot. No one is clear about whether it’s choking, a kind of performance anxiety, or some form of dystonia.4
But what we do know is that the only way to recover fully from it is to start anew, to relearn the motions and to focus on the essentials—breathing, stance, position, release, and posture. None of the archers I saw seemed to have target panic. Few are willing to admit it even if they do.
Yet something else about archery gripped me enough to keep me there. The reason occurred to me as I left practice, walking down Broadway. I stumbled upon a national historic landmark, a restored
eighteenth-century Dutch colonial farmhouse owned by the Dyckman family. It once stood on acreage that spanned the width of Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River, but is currently nestled on the busy avenue behind shrubs and foliage, raised and hidden nearly out of sight. The incongruity of the farmhouse on Broadway intrigued me and I went in for a tour. It was, in fact, my second such visit of the day. Watching an archery team in this modern age had been like seeing a similarly ancient relic, a vestige of a past way of work that we rarely spot in action—not a contest, where there is a victor, but the pursuit of mastery.
The mastery I witnessed on the archery field was not glamorous. There was nobility in it all, but no promise of adulation. There is little that is vocational about American culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude, what it takes to align your body for three hours to accurately account for wind speeds and hit a target—to pursue excellence in obscurity. It was an unending day in and day out attempt to hit the gold that few will ever behold. Perhaps I noticed it more than I would with the practice required for a more familiar, popular sport such as basketball or football, one with more chance of glory or fame. To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.
There was another reason. As each arrow left for its target, the archers were caught between success (hitting the ten) and mastery (knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again). If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that this tension between the two, the momentary nature of success and the unending process required for mastery, is part of what creates target panic or gold fever in the first place.
Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate—perfectionism—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.
From a certain height, we can see it: Many of our most iconic endeavors—from recent Nobel Prize–winning discoveries to entrepreneurial invention, classic works of literature, dance, and visual arts—were in fact not achievements, but conversions, corrections after an arrow’s past flight. I have long had a magpie curiosity about how we become. As an only child who lived in my imagination, I would delve into the life stories of my elders; my contemporaries; historic innovators, creators, and inventors; and those working at the peak of their powers today—people whose lives are like mine, but at the same time vastly different from my own. I couldn’t escape one observation: Many of the things most would avoid, these individuals had turned into an irreplaceable advantage. I still remember the 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.
I had been thinking of this for much of my life, though it only occurred to me when I was midway through writing this book. It happened when I went to Cambridge and walked into a down-sloped room on Harvard’s campus as Bill Fitzsimmons, the longstanding Dean of Admissions, told us, an audience of alumni, that he had been expelled from high school for truancy. He had fallen in with the wrong crowd and started skipping school. He had to work to apply to another high school in the neighboring town. It gave him a sort of resilience, he said, and something he thinks is critical for life itself. “I remember your application,” the dean said to me when I went to greet him after the panel. He said it again as if he were sure, as he looked at
my nametag with my Harvard college alumni year. He grinned, and pursed his lips as if suppressing a thought.
Perhaps he didn’t want to disclose what he had recalled and I had forgotten, a memory long-suppressed: I had written my college application essay about the importance and the advantage of failures—my own—as I perceived them at age eighteen, and in general as a matter of course. I stood there and remembered how I had hidden the essay from my parents and even my college advisor, knowing full well that it was classified as “high risk.” I revealed it at the last minute so that if there were any objections, the lack of any substitute essay would force their hand and let me send it in. I wanted to explore in writing what I was beginning to sense about life—that discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground.
In hindsight, I realize that I was focused on improbable rises because I was beginning to live with the gift of what it means to be underestimated. What happens when the world often assumes, before you’ve even uttered a word, that you could be a failure—based on not fitting a given expectation of the human package in which some expect to find excellence—and how have people turned that into an advantage to meet their aspirations, their dreams?
It was a belief that had crystalized when I would visit my maternal grandparents, who lived in rural Virginia, in a wooden house that was just about ready to sink into the earth. All that was holding it together, it seemed, was their will and a handyman’s attempt. Life for my late grandfather, Shadrach, and grandmother, Blanche, when I was at their house centered around three rooms—the kitchen, filled with all sorts of food I prayed they didn’t eat; the dining room; and the living room, where we did all the things you’re supposed to do in the dining room. Uniting them all was a pass-through chamber where my grandfather would paint his multihued world of characters, both human and divine. He was a janitor by
night, a jazz musician always, and a sign painter on the weekends. But at that dining-room table, he would show what he had conjured. The dining room was a place for showing dreams, and his dreams were shaped by hardship. The reality of what he didn’t want helped him more clearly conjure what he did, and it aided who he would become. Above all, I would not have written this book without his example.
As I stood there in that room in Cambridge, I realized that, fifteen years later, I was still thinking about the unheralded yet vital ways that we re-create our future selves.
We have heard the stories: Duke Ellington would say, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”5
Tennessee Williams felt that “apparent failure” motivated him. He said it “sends me back to my typewriter that very night, before the reviews are out. I am more compelled to get back to work than if I had a success.” Many have heard that Thomas Edison told his assistant, incredulous at the inventor’s perseverance through jillions of aborted attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”6
“Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks . . .” read part of the rejection letter that Gertrude Stein received from a publisher in 1912.7
Sorting through dross, artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators have learned to transform askew strivings. The telegraph, the device that underlies the communications revolution, was invented by a painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, who turned the stretcher bars from what he felt was a failed picture into the first telegraph device. The 1930s RKO screen-test response “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little” was in reference to Fred Astaire. We hear more stories from commencement speakers—from J. K. Rowling to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey—who move past bromides to tell the audience of the uncommon means
through which they came to live to the heights of their capacity. Yet the anecdotes of advantages gleaned from moments of potential failure are often considered cliché or insights applicable to some, not lived out by all.
This book is about the advantages that come from the improbable ground of creative endeavor. Brilliant inventions and human feats that have come from labor—an endeavor that offers the world a gift from the maker’s soul—involve a path aided by the possibility of setbacks and the inestimable gains that experience can provide. Some could say that what we call “work” often does not. “Work is what we do by the hour,” author Lewis Hyde argues, but labor “sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. . . . Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labors.”8
A division line often positions creativity, innovation, and discoveries as a separate, even elite, category of human endeavor: chosen, lived out by a few. Yet our stories challenge this separation. If we each have the capacity to convert the excruciating into an advantage, it is because this creative process is crucial for pathmaking of all kinds.
What we gain by looking at mastery, invention, and achievement is the value of otherwise ignored ideas—the power of surrender, the propulsion of the “near win,” the critical role of play in achieving innovation, and the importance of grit and creative practice.
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. (The word was, after all, not designed for us, but to assess creditworthiness in the nineteenth century, a term for bankruptcy, a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth.)9
Perhaps a nineteenth-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.10
Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal, measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect—one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth.11
No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept. As it is with an archer’s target panic—an experience widely felt, but not often glimpsed—the phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist—resilience, reinvention, and grit—but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.
These chapters form the biography of an idea that exists without a current definition. When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances—flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups—yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible. As legendary playwright Christopher Fry reminds us:
From ourselves, can see any difference between
Our victories and our defeats?12
It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.
On that cold day in May, I watched the Columbia archers and saw why errorless learning does not lead to certain wins. Some archers spend months practicing rhythmic breathing to release the arrow at the rest between their heartbeats, miming the motions, training their bodies to have impeccable bone alignment and scapula motion. They start by using just their hand and an elastic band at very close range on a target with an extremely large face. Their aim has to be nearly flawless before they can move the target farther and farther back. Yet triumph means dealing with the archer’s paradox, handling what lies out of our control: wind, weather, and the inevitably unpredictable movements in life. Hitting gold means learning to account for the curve embedded in our aim.
This book is not an Ariadne’s thread, not a string that prescribes how to wind our way through difficult circumstance. It is an exploration, an atlas of stories about our human capacity, a narrative-driven investigation of facts we sensed long before science confirmed them. The many who appear on these pages gave me their trust to present their journeys and offered me a critical reminder, one that created the unintended thesis of this book. It is the creative process—what drives invention, discovery, and culture—that reminds us of how to nimbly convert so-called failure into an irreplaceable advantage. It is an idea once known, lived out, taken for granted, and now, I hope, no longer forgotten.