The Journey

Approaching six years of age, Mowgli is a CrossFit OG. He has seen big lifts and awesome times, every Open, several Regionals, and the 2009 Games.

Approaching six years of age, Mowgli is a CrossFit OG. He has seen big lifts and awesome times, every Open, several Regionals, and the 2009 Games (thanks for the pic, Pete).

This is the second of a three-part series on virtuosity and excellence. The first can be found here.

I think a lot about excellence, virtuosity, and their corollary, mastery (herehere, here, and here). Just what is the nature of these three concepts? What does it mean to possess them in some capacity, any capacity?

Does perfection equal virtuosity? Certainly there is a very strong link. Peter Carl Faberge was without a doubt a virtuoso. His eggs are about as perfect as something manmade can get. Free of flaw or defect, as good as it is possible to get. But what about Tom Waits? An even cursory listening to his awe-inspiring repertoire will reveal that he is also a virtuoso, a master of his craft. But is one of his songs perfect? It’s perfectly Tom Waits, of course, and I feel very solid in saying that’s good enough for him, but Faberge egg perfect? I think that perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Virtuosity, however, I feel can’t be in the eye of the beholder. It should be something felt, visceral, recognized when seen. Thus, I think that there is often an over preoccupation with the notion of perfection in association with virtuosity.

One of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Vladimir Horowitz, is legendary for his skill and technique, and how he transcended concentration into relaxation. But what is interesting for our conversation is that Horowitz made mistakes in his performances. His playing was so clear and unmuddied that his mistakes were readily noticed. He acknowledged this, “I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare.” Perfection was not his end goal. Playing the piano incredibly was. He knew that great and perfect were not compatible, saying “Perfection itself is imperfection.” He knew that if he played perfectly he would be lacking something else. Soul? Fire? Heart? Was he any less a virtuoso because of his mistakes?

Some traditions of mastery actively avoid perfection, finding it cold and soulless, as Horowitz seemed to. Japanese ceramics, one of the great pottery traditions of the world, has a very large component that stresses the feeling of the pot, not the perfection of the form. Rough coarse clay, full of impurities that explode upon firing, is used almost exclusively. There is no doubt that these artisans embody virtuosity and mastery, but is their work perfect? I think most people would probably say no.

So, perfection and virtuosity are two separate concepts. It seems the former is relative while the latter is not. At best, perfection may be the end result in some cases, but mastery, virtuosity, always comes from the journey. Therefore, I feel strongly that it is important to remember that virtuosity, mastery, comes from the steps it takes to get there, not the state of being there. From the journey, not the state of existence. In other words, if you could magically all of a sudden have all the skill of a master, a virtuoso, you would not have the mastery, the virtuosity, because you had not undergone the journey that the skill you just so miraculously acquired resulted from, the journey that led to the mastery.

It is here that we come back to our pursuit of CrossFit. Not CrossFit perfection, but rather virtuosity. And what is ‘CrossFit virtuosity’ anyway? To my mind it is not perfection of movement, although we strive always for excellence. Perfection is relative to perception, excellence is a visible, tangible thing. It readily shows itself in movement. Virtuosity is less a physical entity and more a manifestation of something that is slippery to name and difficult to grasp, but is apparent. Constant pursuit of excellence coupled with creativity and understanding may, if one is lucky, result over time in mastery, in virtuosity.

So CrossFit mastery, or karate mastery or pottery mastery or piano mastery, transcends the physical movement and crosses over into a deep understanding of movement. It is incredible skill and knowledge and ability, yes, but it is more a deep authority over and rapport with the subject without domination or imposition.

Or something like that. The best concepts are always the most difficult to put into words.

A special thanks to Adrienne  for her help.

Thoughts? Please post them to Comments.