Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Price of Mastery

A little over a week ago I was deadlifting, which is one of my favorite lifts. It is a very heavy lift, in which the bar is resting on the ground and the lifter simply grips it and picks it up. I like the lift, but this particular time I went a little too heavy, and I lost my form. I tried to muscle through it anyway and ended up pulling a muscle in my lower back. So for the last week and a half I have been taking it easy. The whole next week I did not work out at all, and this week I am only running and biking. Next week I will add body weight exercises, and work my way back up.

The day after the injury I was visiting with my family in South Carolina, just sitting around eating ice cream, and I went into a series of back spasms that felt like they were bending my spine in half backwards. Never having experienced physical pain like that before, they rather took me by surprise, but eventually I took a muscle relaxer and the spasms stopped, or at least reduced enough so that I could function. It did not prevent me from continuing to visit, albeit from a prone position on the living room floor.

My Mom and my Aunt, lovely women that they are, went into full on maternal mode, offering every possible remedy and comfort they could think of, from a hot shower to a left over hydrocodone. My Aunt especially is an empathizer, to the point where I truly believe she feels pain sympathetically. She was more upset about it than I was. As I hobbled to the car, bent over like an old man, I told her, “It happens, you know? It’s just part of the price for living life. Sometimes the price is higher than others.” I don’t think it comforted her much, but it made a lot of sense to me.

In the intervening weeks of slow rehab I have been thinking about that statement, and I realize that I was touching on a far-reaching principle. To put the same thing another way, there is no greatness without sacrifice.

My cousin was once show-casing his photos at a photography show and an admiring person admitted, “I wish I could take pictures like that. You know, I wanted to be a photographer once. I got a camera and tried to learn, but all of my pictures were terrible.” When describing this event afterward my cousin said, “What I wanted to say was, ‘No you didn’t want to be a photographer. If you really wanted it you would have kept doing it over and over until you got it right. I can show you my early photos if you want. They suck. I just didn’t give up, that’s all.’”

The key component of talent, it seems, is the desire to do something. However, this desire is not simply the thought, “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice,” or at least it cannot be for very long. Unless you happen to be Mozart (prodigies do exist, although they are very rare) your initial attempts at any kind of greatness are not going to be great at all. They are going to be terrible. Even Mozart’s first compositions were not great compared to his mature work. They were comparatively great, great compared to the work of all the other three-year-old composers in the world.

In the same way, on a slightly less abrupt difference curve, the little girl who wants to be a dancer is not a great dancer. She does not have strength, grace, discipline or control, except compared to other little girls her own age. All she has is the raw desire, to dance, and a certainty that she can, in fact, do it. Whether or not she ever becomes a great dancer is entirely determined by what happens next. What encouragement will her efforts receive? Too little approval and she will lose confidence and give up. Too much, or the wrong kind of approval and she will think she already is a great dancer and will not work hard enough to achieve her full potential. Will she get distracted by lesser pleasures, such as parties, flirtations, pop-culture and allow the greater interest to be crowded out? Will she find a better goal, such as becoming a mother or a nun, and give up the lesser one to pursue the greater one?

(In any study of mastery there are two major questions: How does one become a master any given pursuit? And how does that mastery fit into the greater context of life? I only address the first question in this blog. The second would be topic enough for a book, rather than a blog.)

On thing is certain: if that little girl truly wants to become a dancer, she will have to sacrifice for it. She will have to turn a critical eye to her dancing as it is, comparing it to what it could be. She will have to avoid the temptation to blame her shortcomings on others, (“I would have, but I couldn’t afford lessons, my parents didn’t encourage me, it was a silly dream, I never had any encouragement, I wasn’t pretty enough, Lilly Perfect won that competition because her Dad knows the judges, etc.) She will have to choose to see failures as learning opportunities, and most of all she must not give up. She must pay the price.

The price is in getting up early or going to bed late, saying no to that extra slice of birthday cake, practicing your chosen pursuit when others are going out to the movies. It means being misunderstood by friends who do not see what you see, and think your insistence on following this particular echo very silly, especially when you are foregoing so much fun on the way. The price is in the sore muscles, or the physical discomfort of pushing your metabolic conditioning farther than it wants to go, or carrying heavy cameras up mountains to get that one perfect shot of the sunrise. The price is paid in injuries, sickness, boredom, hours and hours of mind-numbing, repetitious practice of the same basic scales and arpeggios over and over again.

So it is with deadlifting. When you rip a 450 Lb. bar off the ground and stand up straight and strong with a primal roar, feeling the steel flexing under the weight, feeling the power and stability from the soles of your feet, through flexed calves, knees straight but not locked, thighs hard as tree trunks under the strain, butt and hips tight, compact and locked, spine perfectly aligned, shoulders upright and sucked into their sockets, with every muscle of chest and back perfectly tensed to hold the posture, arms straight, forearms clenched, and fingers locked around the bar, there is a vitality in the experience that you could never feel without the risk, without the pain. There is more life, in the moment, a tiny expansion of the heart and body’s capacity for being alive. If you pay attention with mind and soul alive, there is food for them as well.

And then the price continues. As we age and get older, injuries become more frequent. Bones and joints become less resilient, muscles less flexible, pain more and more a constant. The abilities that we struggled so long and hard to perfect become harder, shakier, and eventually they slip away. We are left with the mystery of mortality, the loss of everything that we sacrificed so much to achieve, and the question, “Was it worth it?” But this gets into the second question, which I said I was not going to get into.

The point of this blog is simply that if you want to be good at anything, you must be willing to sacrifice. If you want to be great at something, you must sacrifice greatly. These are the beginning rumblings of a much further reaching set of thoughts. Who knows, maybe someday I will write a book. It will have to be a lot more organized than this, though.

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