How to be excellent

What distinguishes mediocrity from excellence? Determination, discipline, and vision. A spark that lights the fire. If life is hard, that is the way. Take a break every so often. First, climb the mountain. Every mountain. Focus on conquering one area, then another, then another. Then sow the seeds of success in every field of your empire. And let the future grow.

From Whiplash (2014).

The lyrics of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ are mediocre imitations of Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’, but both songs encapsulate the feeling of vertigo experienced by all who accept their destiny and abandon all worry. The only thing to fear is fear itself; the only doubt is doubt itself. Let go of the Earth, and defy gravity. But then, as Rosé’s ‘On the Ground’ demonstrates, it is vital to return to our roots in order to realise their fruits. In between, we grow the trunk and branches of the tree of life. This growth is frustrating and infuriating. It takes time — and yet, time is of the essence. We must be forgiving to others, and to ourselves. But we must also know when to show no mercy. It is hard. It is difficult. It is painful. ‘Love is Pain’, the singer FINNEAS declares. Life, in turn, is suffering.

I recently encountered on YouTube ‘Clip: LISA becomes a tough mentor’, which reminded me of the film Whiplash, in which J. K. Simmons plays a harsh mentor of an eager young drummer played by Miles Teller. There is something theatrical to these scenes, in which teacher verbally abuses their eager student in order to draw out excellence from them. The teacher/student relationship is essentially a master/slave dialectic on stilts. It takes time for the student and slave to rebel against their parental masters. When they do, all hell breaks loose.

If they return to servitude, to learn again, difficulties arise. To accept slavery is one thing; to accept it after tasting freedom is another. As in Plato’s analogy of the charioteer, we must forget the heavens to which we have flown in order to repair the broken chariot on Earth. Then we can return, and remember what we forgot. This cycle of remembering and forgetting is vital to all human endeavour. It is the wheel of time, and it is unbreakable. Or so it seems.

Over time, we may remember more purely, if we have practised the cycle enough times. In this way, the schools of academic study and musical songwriting may find a balance in the university of life. To be truly excellent is not to decide one way or another, but to choose whatever path is most illuminating and life-affirming. This may, however, require undertaking some tasks — such as tedious study and tiny adjustments to the EQ of a single vocal track — that seem life-denying, and depressingly darkening. In such a situation, success is elusive, but this is not the point. If we do not succeed, the only person to blame is our own person. We may have done no wrong — but we may have done nothing truly right either. And even if we find the caution of balance, we need the spark of ambition, too. We need a deeper balance, a broader drive, and a more powerful mind than the gods have given us to overcome some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles ahead. But the limits of imagination are the limits of our world, and to change the world first we must imagine it differently. Then, we must put our imagination into practice.

There is, in truth, only one answer to all these problems, and only one basic motto of excellence, success, and all the trimmings, as encapsulated in the song by Daft Punk, sampled recently by Kanye West: ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’. Or

Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger.

– Daft Punk.

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