Mastery (a little off-topic)

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?

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4 thoughts on “Mastery (a little off-topic)

  1. You nailed it on the head. I'm so glad that we agree with one another. I watched both videos and listened to the pompous ass explain why Chris's perfomance is flat and thought, "Why is this guy so mad?" You can feel his frustration and need to get his point across. Yet what he misses is the performance. Chris's soft nature, and attitude is what he lacks. Chris is having so much fun as he is performing. And the crowd is pulled into his energy on the stage. Although Jason's skills were impressive, he falls flat when it comes to the entertainment. I don't know if it's because of his need to discredit Chris. I definitely was seeing the generation difference and just felt like slapping Jason across the face. Wanted to shake him and say, "Why are you such an arrogant punk!" It was like his manhood had been threaten by Chris. Excellent blog Larry. I could go on and on about this topic!

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  2. Hi Larry…Heather sent me here to watch these jugglers so I hope you dont mind me commenting.

    Firstly I absolutely LOVED the music as I am such an old Beatles freak. There is absolutely no doubt that Jason is by far the superior juggler. His skill and expertise along with his routine stood head and shoulders over Chris. The difference, was a comparison between an amateur and a professional.
    What rankles is Jason's need to put Chris down in this way. That isnt sportsmanlike and it will lose him brownie points which is a shame because overall he is the better juggler.
    So, who would I pay money to go and see? That has to be my criteria, and for me……….it's Jason. (Sorry Heather lol)

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  3. I did not realize there was a whole subculture and “competitiveness” in juggling. Maybe Jason did not make it on the Tonight Show and is upset at all the publicity Chris is getting, I agree Heather, nevertheless, both are pretty good with Jason clearly superior, but this kid can do 7, not to the Beatles, but okay come on it’s 7.

    http://www.hedonistica.com/media.php?path=/videos/seven_balls.wmv

    WOW, even a website for jugglers, http://www.juggling.org/fame/

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