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  • 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 lay 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 Paulzanne 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 DunningKruger 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