Close

Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

This is part of our monthly TED Talk Tuesday series, spotlighting can't-miss TED Talks and their key takeaways. You can learn more about our partnership with TED here.

Everyone strives for success, but it's mastery that's more rewarding, says art historian and critic Sarah Lewis. Success comes at moments when individuals actually reach an end goal for which they've long strived—but it's fleeting, and it's not the best measure of quality. After all, is an Olympic silver medalist unsuccessful because she didn't earn the coveted gold medal?

Even some of history's greatest artists like painter Paul Cézanne didn't consider themselves successful—on the contrary, Cézanne thought of his most recognizable masterpieces as incomplete, Lewis explains. So how should individuals measure their aptitude, if not by success? According to Lewis, embracing near-wins is a better way to evaluate the mastery of a craft.

Watch the video below and read on for three key takeaways from her talk.

"Success is a moment, but what we're always celebrating is creativity and mastery."

Success shouldn't just mean reaching a specific goal, according to Lewis, because the journey towards that goal can be equally, if not more, rewarding. When it comes to archery, for example, hitting a target is impressive, but even the best archers in the world miss sometimes. Still, society celebrates their perfect posture, laser focus and collected nature, Lewis points out. They're masters, even if they hit slightly off the bullseye.

Similarly, for organizational leaders, it's important to celebrate creative ideas or valiant efforts that show commitment and mastery of a subject, even if they aren't immediately successful. Simply seeing something through a new lens can shake up the way your company works, so consider new ideas for their full substance, before labeling them as a success or failure.

"Mastery is not a commitment to a goal but to a constant pursuit."

While some people rush to declare their work completed, masters take their time, often throwing work away before it's finished because they're unsatisfied with the direction it has taken. Constantly striving for improvement, Lewis says, is what separates true masters from others.

Reward employees that exhibit this level of determination and attention to detail, but remind them that perfection is an unattainable goal. Encourage them to strive for their best and take pride in their completed work, rather than abandoning it in fear of criticism or constructive feedback.

"Success motivates us, but a near-win can propel us in an ongoing quest."

Sometimes, finding what won't work is just as important as realizing what will, Lewis says. Being a true master of something, be it personal or professional, requires failure, because every near-win drives individuals to improve their performance. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an Olympian who missed the gold medal in the heptathlon by a third of a second in 1984, came back in 1988 to not only win gold, but also set a record that no athlete has come close to since.

At work, near-wins can have a similar effect—when an employee's project misses the mark the first time around, they'll be motivated to come back with a stronger idea next time. It's this iterative process that makes people "masters," even if they're not successful every time, according to Lewis.

Photo: TED