What’s So Great About Perfect?
I was watching a documentary about Lindsey Vonn, the champion ski racer, and she said something really interesting (I’m paraphrasing):
The fastest runs are never the perfect ones. Perfect runs are always slow.
My friend Christy is a downhill racer herself. I asked her about this. She said,
That’s absolutely true. In the runs that are your fastest, you get past the point of control. You’re reacting to the hill in the moment. Maybe a bump throws you off and as you try to recover you find you’re taking a line that you never took before and somehow that line is faster. Perfect is the enemy of fast.
This is true about writing or any form of art. Was Huckleberry Finn perfect? Homer’s Odyssey wasn’t. The Bible is as imperfect as it gets. The Sistine Chapel? The Parthenon? Anything by Van Gogh?
If you’re a reader of this blog, I know you’ve had the following experience:
You hit a hot streak at the keyboard. A thousand words come pouring out, two thousand, three—without effort, without thought. You read them over the next day and you say to yourself, “Wow, where did that come from?”
Then you try to “clean it up.” What happens? The magic dissolves beneath your fingertips.
You have to make yourself stop. Better to go with something that’s alive than to refine it and correct it to death.
In the documentary, they show Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal run at the Olympics. I don’t know anything about ski racing, so forgive me if I’m seeing this wrong. But Ms. Vonn was going so fast she was practically off the course half the time. She had no fear. She was strong as a horse. She was flat-out flying.
Speed works in writing too. I’m trying to do it right now in this sentence. Not so much typing fast or spewing your guts without thinking as keeping moving, not looking back, not looking down, searching always for the line (in the skiing sense) that gets you down the hill faster.
The other big moment in the Lindsey Vonn documentary was a colossal crash that she took. You see her lose her balance at what, ninety miles an hour? She goes down like a bomb, her legs do a split thirty degrees past the human maximum, her head inside her helmet slams into the hill and then she’s on her back, limp as a doll, still doing eighty. She said, “I learned more from that fall than anything. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Why? Because she didn’t die. She went over the edge and it didn’t kill her. She was back on the mountain the next morning.
Writing is not the same as downhill racing. You don’t break your legs, you don’t snap your spine. But you need the same kind of recklessness plunging down that expanse of white.
The pursuit of perfect is Resistance. We’re coloring within the lines so the teacher won’t yell at us.
But the hill doesn’t want perfect. It wants fast.
In the documentary, Lindsey Vonn is eating breakfast. Hard-boiled eggs. She’s peeling ’em one after the other, tossing the yolks aside, shoveling egg-white after egg-white into her face while the shells pile up on the kitchen counter.
That’s how you do it.
Lindsey’s workouts, the docu said, are six hours a day, six days a week. Three on the bike, two with weights in the gym, I forget what the other hour was.
The difference between the way a woman skis and the way a man skis is the men have so much more strength. I want to ski like a man.
That comment is not about gender. It’s about speed. If aliens from Jupiter could ski faster than men, Lindsey would say, “I want to ski like an alien from Jupiter.”
The great champions are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for fast.
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