Sarah Lewis: How Do Our Near-Wins Motivate Us To Keep Going? Not everyone can win the gold medal, and historian Sarah Lewis says that's a good thing. It's the near-wins and bare losses that truly motivate us to master our destinies.

How Do Our Near-Wins Motivate Us To Keep Going?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What is it that drives people to want to - to want to master something, to want to achieve that?

SARAH LEWIS: The drive for mastery, I think, is very different from the drive for success. Like, success, if you want that, it typically means, I think, that you want a kind of approval, you know? It's like, society to sort of say that you're good. I think mastery is about really valuing your own opinion of what you're doing far more really than almost anyone else's. That is at the heart, I think, of mastery, just loving the process.

RAZ: This is Sarah Lewis.

LEWIS: I'm a curator and author, and I teach at Yale University School of Art.

RAZ: Sarah writes about the differences between success and mastery and about the value of what she calls the near win.

LEWIS: The near win has to do with that gap between where you are and where you want to go and the propulsion that comes from constantly trying to close it. And I think that's what the path of mastery looks like.

RAZ: Here's Sarah Lewis on the TED stage.


LEWIS: I started to understand this when I went on one cold, May day to watch a set of varsity archers - all women as fate would have it - at the northern tip of Manhattan at Columbia's Baker Athletic Complex. I wanted to see what's called archer's paradox - the idea that in order to actually hit your target, you have to aim at something slightly askew from it. I stood and watched as the coach drove up these women in this grey van, and they exited with this kind of relaxed focus. They passed me and smiled, but they sized me up as they made their way to the turf and spoke to each other not with words, but with numbers, degrees, I thought, positions for how they might plan to hit their target.

I stood behind one archer as her coach stood in between us, to maybe assess who might need support, and watched her. And I didn't understand how even one was going to hit the 10 ring. From the standard 75 yard distance, it looks as small as a matchstick tip held out at arm's length. And this is while holding 50 pounds of draw weight on each shot. She first hit a seven, I remember, then a nine, then two 10s. Then the next arrow didn't even hit the target. And I saw that gave her more tenacity, and she went after it again and again. For three hours, this went on.

At the end of the practice, one of the archers was so taxed that she laid out on the ground just star-fished. It's so rare in American culture, there's so little that's vocational about it anymore, to look at what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude, what it means to align your body posture for three hours in order to hit a target, pursuing a kind of excellence in obscurity. But I stayed because I realized I was witnessing what's so rare to glimpse - that difference between success and mastery. So success is hitting that 10 ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can't do it again and again.

RAZ: Is there something that those archers have that, like, we don't?

LEWIS: You know, what intrigued me about those archers is that they seemed like proxies for us. So I understood this idea about the gift of the near win, really by watching them, by watching that process and seeing in that instant how people would shift. And that's, for me, why it became a kind of metaphor for life. How is it that you're going to achieve your goal in spite of the many things that could knock you off, you know?

RAZ: I mean, you think about somebody like Diana Nyad, who we just heard from in the show - I mean, she had four near wins before she made it.

LEWIS: Yeah, exactly.

RAZ: And you hear that - you hear those stories, and you think, those were just as important as her ultimate win.

LEWIS: Exactly, you know, her journey reminds me of really the validity of Winston Churchill's quote, when he said, success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. But the question is, what does it take to stay encouraged? Diana Nyad, though, for me, is like a contemporary story because there's someone who sort of came before her, Florence May Chadwick, another channel swimmer.

In 1952, she wanted to swim the Catalina Channel, and she found herself in this position of coming close to her goal. But she just couldn't continue. She couldn't make it across the channel. So she decided to get into the boat, and she was in the middle of a really foggy period in the Catalina Channel. And so she found her breath again and was in this boat, and the fog lifted. She noticed that she was just a mile form her goal, from the shore. And what she said was so instructive, you know. She said, I think if I had seen the shore, I could have made it. And so she decided two months later to swim the Catalina Channel again. And she not only completed it, but she bested the men's record for doing so in 1952.

RAZ: Wow.

LEWIS: And I love that. I think she described what allowed Diana Nyad to keep going. She kept the shoreline in her mind's eye the whole time.


LEWIS: Success motivates us, but a near win can propel us in an ongoing quest. One of the most vivid examples of this comes when we look at the difference between Olympic silver medalists and bronze medalists after competition. Thomas Gilovich and his team from Cornell studied this difference and found that the frustration silver medalists feel compared to bronze, who are typically a bit more happy to have just not received fourth place and not medaled at all, gives silver medalists a focus on follow-up competition. And this is what a near win does; it gets us to focus on what, right now, we plan to do to address that mountain in our sights. It's Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who in 1984 missed taking the gold in the Heptathlon by one-third of a second. In 1988, she won the gold in Heptathlon and set a record of 7,291 points, a score that no athlete has come very close to since.

We thrive not when we've done it all, but when we still have more to do. We know that we thrive when we stay at our own leading edge, and it's why the deliberate incomplete is inbuilt into creation myths. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women would deliberately put an imperfection in textiles and ceramics. It's what's called a spirit line - a deliberate flaw in the pattern to give the weaver or maker a way out, but also a reason to continue making work.

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They're masters because they realize that there isn't one. We build out of the unfinished idea, even if that idea is our former self. This is the dynamic of mastery, coming close to what you thought you wanted can help you attain more than you ever dreamed you could. Even if we created utopias, I believe we would still have the incomplete. Completion is a goal, but we hope it is never the end. Thank you.


RAZ: Sarah Lewis - her book about mastery is called "The Rise." Check out her full talk at


THE PLATTERS: (Singing) Winner take all. Winner take all. I'm playing a game called winner take all. Your kiss is the best.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the making of a champion this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more, or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out You can also find many, many more TED Talks at And you can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.