I feel so fortunate that my first job was working at the Museum of Modern Art on a retrospective of painter Elizabeth Murray. I learned so much from her. After the curator Robert Storr selected all the paintings from her lifetime body of work, I loved looking at the paintings from the 1970s. There were some motifs and elements that would come up again later in her life. I remember asking her what she thought of those early works. If you didn't know they were hers, you might not have been able to guess. She told me that a few didn't quite meet her own mark for what she wanted them to be. One of the works, in fact, so didn't meet her mark, she had set it out in the trash in her studio, and her neighbor had taken it because she saw its value.
In that moment, my view of success and creativity changed. I realized that success is a moment, but what we're always celebrating is creativity and mastery. But this is the thing: What gets us to convert success into mastery? This is a question I've long asked myself. I think it comes when we start to value the gift of a near win.
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 Athletics 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 skew from it. I stood and watched as the coach drove up these women in this gray van, and they exited with this kind of relaxed focus. One held a half-eaten ice cream cone in one hand and arrows in the left with yellow fletching. And 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 ten ring. The ten 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, and then a nine, and then two tens, and 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 lied out on the ground just star-fished, her head looking up at the sky, trying to find what T.S. Eliot might call that still point of the turning world.
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 ten ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can't do it again and again. Mastery is not just the same as excellence, though. It's not the same as success, which I see as an event, a moment in time, and a label that the world confers upon you. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal but to a constant pursuit. What gets us to do this, what get us to forward thrust more is to value the near win. How many times have we designated something a classic, a masterpiece even, while its creator considers it hopelessly unfinished, riddled with difficulties and flaws, in other words, a near win? Elizabeth Murray surprised me with her admission about her earlier paintings. Painter Paul Cézanne so often thought his works were incomplete that he would deliberately leave them aside with the intention of picking them back up again, but at the end of his life, the result was that he had only signed 10 percent of his paintings. His favorite novel was "The [Unknown] Masterpiece" by Honoré de Balzac, and he felt the protagonist was the painter himself. Franz Kafka saw incompletion when others would find only works to praise, so much so that he wanted all of his diaries, manuscripts, letters and even sketches burned upon his death. His friend refused to honor the request, and because of that, we now have all the works we now do by Kafka: "America," "The Trial" and "The Castle," a work so incomplete it even stops mid-sentence.
The pursuit of mastery, in other words, is an ever-onward almost. "Lord, grant that I desire more than I can accomplish," Michelangelo implored, as if to that Old Testament God on the Sistine Chapel, and he himself was that Adam with his finger outstretched and not quite touching that God's hand.
Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It's in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career. How many inventors and untold entrepreneurs live out this phenomenon? We see it even in the life of the indomitable Arctic explorer Ben Saunders, who tells me that his triumphs are not merely the result of a grand achievement, but of the propulsion of a lineage of near wins.
We thrive when we stay at our own leading edge. It's a wisdom understood by Duke Ellington, who said that his favorite song out of his repertoire was always the next one, always the one he had yet to compose. Part of the reason that the near win is inbuilt to mastery is because the greater our proficiency, the more clearly we might see that we don't know all that we thought we did. It's called the Dunning–Kruger effect. The Paris Review got it out of James Baldwin when they asked him, "What do you think increases with knowledge?" and he said, "You learn how little you know."
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 a 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. We see it even in the gambling industry that once picked up on this phenomenon of the near win and created these scratch-off tickets that had a higher than average rate of near wins and so compelled people to buy more tickets that they were called heart-stoppers, and were set on a gambling industry set of abuses in Britain in the 1970s. The reason the near win has a propulsion is because it changes our view of the landscape and puts our goals, which we tend to put at a distance, into more proximate vicinity to where we stand. If I ask you to envision what a great day looks like next week, you might describe it in more general terms. But if I ask you to describe a great day at TED tomorrow, you might describe it with granular, practical clarity. 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, and her husband predicted that would give her the tenacity she needed in follow-up competition. In 1988, she won the gold in the 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. I stand here thinking and wondering about all the different ways that we might even manufacture a near win in this room, how your lives might play this out, because I think on some gut level we do know this. 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.
Now it occurred to me, as I thought about this, why the archery coach told me at the end of that practice, out of earshot of his archers, that he and his colleagues never feel they can do enough for their team, never feel there are enough visualization techniques and posture drills to help them overcome those constant near wins. It didn't sound like a complaint, exactly, but just a way to let me know, a kind of tender admission, to remind me that he knew he was giving himself over to a voracious, unfinished path that always required more.
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. It's what I have to imagine Elizabeth Murray was thinking when I saw her smiling at those early paintings one day in the galleries. 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.