Musos and Masters

This essay by Zed Shaw resurfaced on Proggit today.

Shaw’s essay talks about mastery, as seen from the perspective of martial arts:

After reading books on martial arts history for years, and studying everything I can, I started to see a commonly understood pattern. Almost all people considered masters of their art finally come to such a deep knowledge that they can do more with less. Rather than a flurry of complicated leaping and jumping, the master will simply step to the side and make one calculated strike. Every story about old masters is the same in that, even though they were frail and near death, their knowledge and abilities were so deep and clear that their simplest motions had the greatest power. For a master, the pompous and flowery motions were just wastes of energy.

Some of that might go back to the philosophical underpinnings of many martial arts (particularly Taoism and Chan Buddhism); but a lot of it must come from experience. Eventually the thrill of learning and using a new technique or tool becomes tedious. You just want to get the job done with a minimum of fuss — or perhaps, to win the fight with a minimum of effort.

Meanwhile, in some corners of the programming community, the title “rockstar” has come to be applied to those seen as particularly capable at this or that technology. The rockstar archetype is completely unlike the martial arts master stereotype. Rockstars are disruptive, outrageous floutlaws who amaze with raw talent. Rockstars assault the senses with works of extreme intensity and (often) complexity. The watch-word of the stereotypical rockstar is excess — nothing is done in moderation. The cardinal value of a rockstar is flourish, brilliant improvisation and the ability to push out complex, intense work that inspires a deep and immediate emotional response.

Meanwhile, the stereotype of the wizened old martial arts master is very different. The master disrupts only the student’s thinking. He or she flows easily within society at large. They impress with understated, precise economy. Through a lifetime of effort, the master has learnt the very high cost of effort. Through mastery they have learned to ignore most of what they know. The master’s way to improvise is not to create the most complex thing they can manage (as the rockstar does), but rather, to select the simplest possible means to achieve the immediate ends.

Neither is, truly, a universally “best” archetype for programmers to model themselves after. We can borrow from both. Speaking for myself, perhaps the best fusion of rockstar and master is the jazz musician — jazz musos also have a quasi-taoist philosophy and the years of endless training to make that naturalistic-yet-ornate improv seem utterly simple. The jazz player is a rockstar who became a martial arts master. Perhaps we could aim to be noodlers and jammers, rather than hotel-room wreckers.

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2 Responses to Musos and Masters

  1. Another way of looking at this is that modern times fetishise the hero. In art and architecture and I suspect music though I know way too little to be confident, one used to work with a master and be inducted into a whole style whereupon one then worked within it – and as at a few hundred years ago, it became a touchstone of genius to extend that style in some way.

    But this idea of working within and perhaps extending a style gave way to iconoclasm in the twentieth century. The artist broke the mould – to invoke one cliche. And so we got an art and architecture of heroism. How heroic could one artist be? How many styles could they trash, transcend and so on.

    The greatest disaster was in architecture for some reason I’m not sure of, but the hit rate of substantial buildings or even houses that look really nice went from around 80% to about 1%. A very sad state of affairs. I can think of only one building built since the 60s in a modernist style that I think of as a complete raging success – and that’s the Sydney Opera House (and then only the outside bit that Utzon completed). There are of course others that could be pointed out to me I’m sure, but I can’t think of them right now.

    On the other hand it’s hard to think of a public building built before around 1940 that isn’t somewhere between lovely and ravishingly beautiful – from pretty much any old railway station or post office and any number of terrace houses – Queanbeyan and Albury Railway Stations are faves – to the Legislative Council in Melbourne – or Burley Griffin’s Dining Hall at Newman College in Melbourne.

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    I definitely agree with you about the virtues of our elder buildings. Down the road from where I live is the old Midland Rail Yard, complete with its three massive worksheds.

    They’re utterly functional buildings. My Dad and I looked inside and he pointed out that all three are massively over-engineered so that they can bear the load of entire rail cars and engines being lifted and moved by cranes.

    Yet they are quite beautiful buildings. Simple flourishes make them really very attractive.

    My profession is very young, and already we have a rolling institutional amnesia that prevents us from remembering anything that happened more than 5 years ago. So when we forget the lessons of the 90s, 80s, 70s,60s and 50s — well, only a few greybeards really grizzle about it.

    But architecture is a field with a 10,000 year pedigree, yet modern architects seem utterly determined to reject all the virtues and rediscover all the follies ab initio. It’s thoroughly depressing for such an august and noble profession.

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