I was cleaning out my hard drive when I came across a video I’d downloaded of this amazing juggler, Chris Bliss. If you watch the video of his finale performance, juggling to some Beatles music, you won’t regret the 5 minutes spent. It’s just jaw-dropping.
But then you’ve got to go back to his web site and read the background story of how he briefly became “the world’s most famous juggler.” It’s quite a trip. You see, juggling was sort of a side-skill he developed while working toward other things (what these things were weren’t always clear to him). Ultimately it helped him get into stand-up comedy, which was his real (eventual) goal. But here’s this guy, undeniably one of the best in the world at what he does, but as he puts it, at the top of a very small sand-hill — the juggling universe is just not that big.
It got me thinking about a lot of things. The path of Mastery involves continuous practice, engrossment, perseverence, etc. But was juggling “meaningful” to him? It seems like it was a side-gig in many ways. I once had the experience in college of bumping into my Tae Kwon Do teacher while I was on my way to play an intra-mural ice-hockey game. The modifier “intra-mural” should give you a sense of my skill level. Javi was a 3rd degree black belt and Pan American gold medalist from Mexico. He asked where I was headed, and when I told him, shook his head and said “man, I can’t understand how you stay up on ice like that.” You’ve got to understand, Javi was from Mexico, and his sum total experience of ice was coming to college in New Hampshire and trying not to get killed by it on the sidewalk. So here’s a guy I’ve seen leap 6 feet in the air and shatter boards with his feet, and he’s impressed that I can move on ice without falling down???
It stayed with me, though – his talent was so “normal” to him that he could be envious of something as simple as basic ice skating. The fact that the rest of us were in awe of his skills didn’t preclude him from being respectful/envious of others’.
Chris’s commentary on his juggling reminds me of that – a skill that’s so natural to him he doesn’t really think twice about it. But he’d rather strive at something (stand up comedy) where there is a lot of stiff competition and he’s not necessarily an instant world champion.
Why does this resonate with me? I’ve always had a talent for the “computational arts” (software engineering, statistics, etc.) In many ways I earn my bread and butter by it nowadays. And I enjoy honing those skills. But I’ve always felt my true calling was elsewhere. Where? I’m not sure, but I have some glimmerings. Maybe that’s why I get Chris’s biographical writings – I know what it’s like to be pretty good at something and yet be looking elsewhere for “meaningful” challenge and accomplishment.
Or, here’s another (pseudo-psycho-analytic) interpretation – being world-class is scary and hard, because it calls attention and criticism to oneself. Being a decent standup comic with room to grow is somehow less… threatening? Less to lose?
Now along comes this other juggler who does a parody of Chris’s video. (If you haven’t watched Chris’s video yet, do it now. ) Chris did his routine with 3 balls. This new guy Jason Garfield comes along and does a similar routine with 5 balls. His moves are in many ways technically much flashier than Chris’s. Again, you’ve got to see it to believe it (watch his video). He also posts on his web site why he thinks Chris’s juggling is a pretty inferior performance – “smoke and mirrors” – and then produces yet another video demonstrating why Chris’s choreography is nothing special.
Yet… even with that explanation, I like Chris’s performance better. Yes, Jason’s is by far more complicated and skillful in terms of juggling. I can’t buy his explanation that people are merely responding to the music in Chris’s performance, and that’s why people are enthralled. No, I think Chris took some “simple” (to pro jugglers) moves and music and somehow blended them into something that clicks with people. I wish I had better words to explain it. But Jason’s performance just leaves me flat – and it’s set to the same music.
I think what I really react negatively to is Jason’s need to put down Chris’s act. Sort of like a classical pianist claiming rock-and-rollers aren’t “real” or “serious” musicians. That’s not the point. Why put down a fellow artist? I thought some of the commentary posted on the YouTube page was spot on, too.
Enough rambling for now. I don’t know where I was going with this exactly, but wanted to get it all out there. Comments?