I was thrilled to see Grantland republish David Foster Wallace’s epic profile of Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It’s probably my favorite piece of sportswriting, and among the best pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read. I recommend it without reservation, even if you don’t watch or play tennis; Wallace puts the kinetic sense of watching tennis onto the page in a way that seems impossible until you read it.
The springboard of the profile, and its most important observation, comes six paragraphs in:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
Certainly true, but doesn’t this go even further? The aesthetically impressive creeps up whenever a practical endeavor is pushed to its limits. Think of Joseph Welch in the McCarthy hearings. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” It belongs in the heights of American political rhetoric, but it was said purely in service of a client.* What Welch did during that hearing is what thousands of lawyers do every day; defend a client against an overbearing opposition. That he did it so masterfully, and on such a public stage, elevates it from workmanship to higher aesthetics.
I think this is what we all hope for in our careers–the opportunity to briefly elevate our work to a higher level. Like Roger Federer and tennis, that elevation is not the goal of our work, per se, but we aim for those moments of transcendence. If you find a job that gives you those moments of transcendence on a more than occasional basis, grab like hell onto it and never let go.
* Okay, you got me, all political rhetoric is intended to achieve an end beyond the rhetoric itself. The Gettysburg Address was more than just an attempt to say something that sounded good. But for memorials, convention speeches, etc., the ceremony demands an attempt at beauty. It’s a prerequisite, something that is strived for intentionally, even if not strictly a goal.