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The Nerve for Excellence

“A New Yorker essay that fall noted that mathematicians do good work while they are young because as they age they suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence.” The phrase struck me, and I wrote it down. Nerve had never been a problem; excellence sounded novel.” — Annie Dillard, Afterword of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Take that New Yorker example of mathematicians and apply it to rock stars. How many Paul McCartney or Elton John or Joni Mitchell songs written in their 40’s or later resonate as much as those written in their 20’s? They may be good or even great, but they aren’t classics. Excellence requires the nerve to go for it.

As someone who is no longer in their twenties, I remember the audacity of youth as much as I appreciate the pursuit of safer routes as we age. After all, we’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed and a 401(k) to nurture, right? So what does that mean for those of us who aren’t kids anymore? Should we hang it up after we hit 30? Of course not. But we have to stretch beyond our comfort zone if we want to achieve anything beyond the average.

Sure, when we’re young we have less to lose, so it becomes comparatively easy to jump in to the deep end. But there are other ways to reach the deep end. We can methodically wade in one step at a time. Or to flip analogies, when everyone around us is slowing down to savor the view, we still have the choice to power up the hill.

Nobody reaches mastery without tenacity and drive. Surely there’s a case for perseverance. For incrementally—relentlessly—applying accumulated knowledge towards our goal. Will that lifetime work become a masterpiece? Few ever do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the nerve to try.

Go deeper. Climb higher. See what we might make of our best work.

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