Perfection sucks, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I try not to sound like an ideologue, harping not against the need to be perfect, but the very nature of it. I always thought perfection was not range, between this and that, from this end to the other, rather, it is a knife’s edge, a needle’s head, or a hair’s tip, something very small that we try to achieve, but very often fail to.
There is no need to be perfect in modern life, is there? In a life filled with convenience and comfort, what good is perfection when the marginal increase in the level of comfort achieved might be less than the degree of marginal effort? Yet, there are few in society who still continue to push their level of ‘perfection’ redefining it every day. In fact, if we look at the upper echelons of society, there are many such people. But scattered among them are two groups of people who strive to perform at their best, from two diagrammatically opposite environments, with two diagrammatically opposite motivations — professional athletes and the armed forces.
I speak here specifically with respect to the physical sense. Training that is more mental is rarely quantifiable, and even so, it is innate, and can never be standardized. Physical exertion, due to its simplistic nature, is straightforward, relatable, and measurable. Solving a complex mathematical equation while pushing the limitations of mental fortitude, is understood in its ability to exert the mind by only a handful. However, completing a gargantuan physical task is understood by most, because of the measurable quantities [kilometres ran, kilograms lifted, etc.] that we’re all subjected to in our everyday life. Perhaps it is my bias that has lulled me to look at two sets of people occupying a physical sphere. Maybe it’s their primitive nature, but what they do and why they do it is not just fascinating, but an example of how they approach performance and perfection.
Athletes and the armed forces also seems a weird combination. Well, I must admit, I didn’t think too hard about this, rather I chanced upon the pair. During preparation for his “Strongman Swimming” challenge, Ross Edgely met the graduating class of the Royal Marines. Edgley, a British ‘adventure athlete’ before he was known for swimming around Great Britain [yes, the entire island!], set off to swim from St. Lucia to Martinique, two islands in the Caribbean. He visited the Marines to understand mental fortitude, the ability to do with the body what is impossible to the mind. This meeting succinctly worded and displayed the difference between ‘perfection and performance.’
In the middle of conversation one of the Marines said this to Edgely, which for some reason was more profound given who the two, on opposite sides of the conversation were, and what they were separately chasing,
“Athletes train to be their best, we train to perform at our worst,”
Here were two people enduring physical hardship, building mental fortitude for the pursuit of two different forms of perfection. To them, perfection wasn’t ‘perfect,’ it wasn’t placed on a knife’s edge, a needle’s head or a hair’s tip, like I initially thought, but was a whole different yard. Each person in that conversation aims for a ‘perfect performance,’ but what is perfect to one, is not perfect to the other; in fact, it is wholly different.
This difference is ‘perfection’ bleeds over into their training, guided by the superlatives mentioned by the Marine. In order to train, to the absolute optimum, an athlete will require a host of factors to be coordinated. Everything from nutrition, and hydration, to rehab and recovery, will be precisely aligned to maximize performance. Given the investment and emotion riding on such performances, such coordination is only necessary. For a moment, compare this to how any armed forces ‘train’ for their performance. No specific attention is placed on the optimum nutrition, breaking it down by macro and micro nutrients, the hydration is not expressed in liters of fluids lost and replenished, nor is the sleep the standard eight hours. Yet, the ‘obsession,’ if not the ‘duty’ to chase ‘perfection’ is the same, if not more.
Both these groups of ‘perfection seekers’ are the epitome of discipline. From their daily training sessions to the way they live their daily lives, everything is scheduled and timed. Not an ounce of energy is spent doing anything frivolous. Everything is deliberate, and in pursuit of the greater goal. For the athlete, this goal is a medal, or a trophy, for the armed forces it’s maybe love for the country or the cause; regardless, the dedication is unparalleled.
What struck me most by what the Royal Marine said was his use of the words ‘best’ and ‘worst,’ referenced by their respective prefixes, “train” and “perform.” The difference in performance cannot be more clear than that! An athlete trains specifically night and day, he measures his daily caloric intake, she plans out her weekly workouts, every inch or their training is detailed, all in search of one goal, to peak at the right time, and at the right place. They always exercise caution in training to avoid going too ‘hard’ or too ‘fast’ for a host of different reasons; to prevent injury, accelerate recovery, and even to avoid achieving a PB in training, and save it for the final day. You’ll hear athletes who are training for a series of competitions, to peak for the perfect match, fight, lift or race. Athletes chase their ‘best,’ summoning it to the surface rarely, if ever.
On the other side, the armed forces, who also have their own training regiment focus on the opposite end of the stick. To use the Royal Marine’s words, their aim is to “perform” at their “worst,” come what may. Through injury, pain, sleep or hunger, the goal is to perform no matter what the circumstances. There is no caution in ‘going too hard’ or ‘going too fast’ everything is at full throttle. They are put through the worst physical and mental training imaginable, with the objective to still “perform” despite being broken. So often are they at their “worst,” it begins to feel normal, some even crave it, and despise life that is devoid of it. The armed forces chase their “worst” and allow themselves to eventually feel comfortable, sometimes even go numb in it.
Such a parallel of pursuit, aligning with a centrality of objective, to be an iteration of ‘perfection,’ is indicative of a larger picture. To me, that picture is ‘‘work to be your best, but also have the ability survive at your worst.” There will be times when you’ve go to work with precision and detail to achieve a delicate task, a task that will require all your focus, determination and performance, one in which you’ll have to be your very best at a particular time. On the other hand, you’ve got to balance this with the ability to summon that raw grit and resilience to be able to shut your month, quit whining, stop thinking and get it done; the simple and sadistic ability to “perform” when you’re at your absolute “worst.”