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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