What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Lewis

Another brilliant read from another Brené Brown podcast guest! These podcasts really have been responsible for most of my to-be-read pile over the past couple of years. Just like other books I’ve heard featured on the podcasts and read, like The Body is Not an Apology or Burnout, The Rise was thought-provoking and inspiring.

It’s also not a book I would have picked out otherwise–Dr. Lewis is a professor of art history and there’s an emphasis on aesthetics and creativity that isn’t something I would ordinarily seek out. I don’t think of myself as creative. In school, I always loved writing but I needed a prompt–I could rock a book report or an AP history document based question, but I struggled to come up with ideas for fiction or poetry assignments. I took a couple of art history classes in undergrad, but I thought it was just for fun. I didn’t see much value in the discipline–I saw majoring in art history as something for rich white kids who don’t need to study vocational subjects because they don’t need to worry about getting a job after graduating (case in point: the Duchess of Cambridge was an art history major).

Sarah Lewis changed my mind about that. In one of her examples of the power of images, she talked about how the diagram of the Brookes slave ship contributed to the abolitionist movement because it vividly showed the inhumanity of the slave trade. That was the kind of real-life, tangible impact that convinced me something more was going on than just memorising names and dates, artists and titles of paintings, etc.

My favourite chapter was on the Deliberate Amateur, which talked about the value of having an outsider’s perspective, and the importance of play in creativity. It’s something that Brené Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfection, and it’s even part of Ted Lasso. Part of the show’s whole premise is that he doesn’t know anything about soccer, but he knows how to coach and inspire people to believe. He brings an outsider’s perspective and creativity, like when he used trick plays to create chaos and throw off Man City.

The section on Samuel B. Morse was also fascinating. I had no idea he was a failed painter! His legacy has been completely associated with telegraphy and Morse code, it’s incredible to think that he had a completely different ambition, and struggled with his lack of success in his painting career. Such an unexpected story! It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s advice to Oprah about her legacy–that you have no idea what your legacy will be. Your legacy is every life that you’ve touched. For Morse, it was the changes wrought by his innovations in telegraphy–this short National Geographic article did a lovely job of summarising it–rather than the legacy he wanted and expected, that of being a great painter.

In my low moments, when I’m despairing of my failed academic career, I look at 2 things to remind myself of the partial legacy I’ve already created. Firstly, I look at comments my students have made about me in their dissertations’ acknowledgement sections, where they thanked me for my support, my kindness, my patience, etc. Things I thought were just normal were actually unusual amongst the staff, and they appreciated it. Secondly, I google my name and see the works that I’ve been cited in. My research has been referenced in other people’s research. It’s not many, but it’s some, and it’s proof enough that people have read my work and used it for its intended purpose. It’s been useful. Maybe it’s all the episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine I’ve been watching over the past few years, but I appreciate being useful.