I woke up this morning with both of my hands in pain. They were stiff and sore. I could barely move them and when I did, I couldn’t move them smoothly. The muscles and tendons in my fingers and on the back of my hands felt like they had run a long distance race. The year-old repetitive strain injury at the base of my thumb had flared up. How had this happened?
Well, I type things most of the day – whether I am answering emails, responding to Skype messages or writing documents for the firm I work for. I estimate that I must routinely write over six or seven thousand words a day, all up. That’s fine if you can go at a comfortable pace, but when you have to write under pressure and stress, with too-short deadlines, as if the future of the firm depends on it, you can’t help but tense up. Tension and repetition is a bad recipe for muscle health. Long hours add to the mix. My typing technique is self taught, too, so there is probably much room for improvement there as well, if only I could slow down for long enough to lose old bad habits and ingrain new, healthier to the fingers ones. In any case, over the past intense week, I did too much.
That led me to think about the intensity that is expected of us, these days. It applies to artists too. Think about a guitar player like Edward Van Halen. Every night, he is expected to perform feats of guitar playing dexterity and fluidity. How do you maintain and sustain that, over a long period of time? Sure, the outstanding performances and virtuoso technique is what made him famous, but how do you reproduce that form each and every night, over the span of a career? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Edward has reportedly needed surgery to his left hand to correct injuries sustained over his career. He was reported, also, to have used stimulant drugs to keep him going on long tours. I don’t know if any or all of that is mere hearsay, but it would not surprise me in the least if it were true. Old symphony orchestra violinists suffer similar work related injuries. Oboe players lose the ability to hold their instruments up at all, balanced on their collapsed thumbs.
We’re unforgiving, really. We expect to see brilliant, peak performances every time. In the Olympics, coaches and athletes know you have to train up to a peak performance and carefully plan and time your training regime so that you can do something outstanding on the day of the event. They also pay a lot of attention to warming down and recovery. There is an entire sports science discipline devoted to it. If you are a touring musician, though, there is no such golden moment. Every night is the Olympics. There’s no warm up or warm down. There is no tapering for the big moment. Similarly, if you write for a living, every week is the same. You have to produce written work, like a machine, every day. No respite.
But we’re not machines. We’re human. We break. If we don’t get the chance to rest and recuperate or recreate, we can be run down into the dirt. We can be ground down to dust. And we’re not disposable, expendable and replaceable. Each of us is unique and our contribution is unique.
I once saw the great Freddie Mercury and Queen in concert. His voice had taken a pounding and he was on the last leg of the tour. The show started slowly. You could see he was straining to perform, vocally. To his credit, he still eventually warmed up and produced an outstanding vocal act and trademark Mercury performance, toward the end of the evening, but I wondered what it must have been like to have the weight of expectation riding on some tired, over-used vocal cords: just a few slender tissues.
As I write this, I have to slow down. My thumb is again hurting. Bear with me.
We need to realise that when we see any performance, but especially an outstanding one, be it in athletics, art or at work, it is its own unique moment in time. We may never see the like again. I saw Pink Floyd in the mid 1980s. That can never happen again, with the passing of dear Rick Wright. I saw Michael Jackson in London. The poor fellow was tired and jaded and didn’t live up to the hype, but with such a high energy act, how could he? That’s another show that will never come around ever again. Even bands I saw for free, in the park, in my youth, have become impossibilities today, due to the deaths of several band members. Did we cherish those moments enough, as something special, unique and possibly never to be repeated? I don’t think so.
The music industry has, in particular, treated its artists as commodities who are required to produce outstanding work consistently, under the pressure of separation from their lives, homes, families and friends, not to mention audience and industry expectations, like flogged horses. They travel like refugees. They are not in their familiar creative spaces. At the merest stumble, the critics circle and engage in a visceral feeding frenzy, ripping the artists’ remaining reputation to pieces and leaving them in threads and tatters. It’s not very fair. It’s not even realistic.
The next time you see anybody do anything outstanding or brilliant, pause for a moment and consider the uniqueness of what you have just witnessed. Be grateful you were there to witness it and be mindful that the moment may never be repeated. It is a gift that you have received. Appreciate it with grace.
As an artist, please learn to pace yourself. Be bloody minded enough to say “no” to some things and to work at a sustainable pace. Save your peak performances for those moments when it really matters. Carve out rest periods and periods for tapering down. Treat your artistic performances the way an elite athlete nurtures theirs. You aren’t a machine, so you need sleep, to eat instead of skipping lunch, to rest when weary and to do nothing (or very little) while you prepare for important moments.
I think the work culture that has grown up in the past three decades increasingly ignores the finite nature of human beings. People are expected to start earlier than office hours, skip lunch, work at a frenetic pace all day long and work late, while commuting great distances to be at the office, day in and day out, over a working lifetime. Programmers are routinely expected to pull all nighters and work successive weekends, over months, for the sake of the project. It seems to be getting worse. The threat is always that you, no matter how brilliant or unique, can be replaced in a heartbeat by somebody fitter and more willing to work like a machine. Those younger people that are able to work even harder, in the short term, will find themselves burning out in their late thirties and forties, instead of their fifties and sixties. There are no magic bullets. There are no short cuts. We’re all finite.
Intensity is the enemy of sustainability. Peak performance is just that – a peak. It can’t be expected routinely. If we wish to have outstanding contributors in the arts, in society and at work, we have to allow them to perform at less than their peak for most of the time. Otherwise, we’re going to wind up with a very talented scrap heap, populated by prematurely burnt out and invalided people, who might have had so much more to give, had they been paced, nurtured and their performances tapered up and down.
There can’t be a more wasteful abuse of human potential than keeping the pedal to the metal; the foot on the gas, the whole time. If we want the outstanding peaks, we’re going to have to accept the troughs. The intensity cannot be constant.