The Paradox of Discernment

My son has gotten me addicted to “Forged in Fire”–a weapon forging competition. Each contestant is given a weapon to recreate or reinterpret and their final projects are put to the test. The first hurdle is parameters. They have 3 hours to turn raw steel (and that’s part of the challenge) into a blade. It has to be the right length and the right shape, or the blacksmith goes home. Then they add the handle and guards and decorations and submit it for the second challenge. For this part, they get 2 hours. When they’re done there’s a strength test and an edge test and if the weapon’s edge curls or chips, if there are gaps between the edge and the handle, if the metal isn’t tempered and formed correctly or it fails the tests and actually breaks, that blacksmith goes home. In the Second build, the remaining Two blacksmiths go to their home forges and make a rather large project. It has to go through a kill test (with a pig carcass or a ballistics dummy) a strength test (where they beat the daylights out of it to see if it can survive) and a cut test where they check the edge and the damage it causes.

We watched the battle of the services: 4 competitions involving Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy, and each had to do a typical service knife and the ceremonial sword carried by the officers in their branch. We have been watching this show for a while now and have seen some amazing weapons produced, and my son being an Army Vet, we wanted the Army blacksmith to win. We were watching the competition with the Marines and the K-Bar. One of the competitors had a really REALLY ugly knife. The serrations near the handle looked like they’d been done by a kid. He didn’t get it ground down correctly either, so it looked like had been found on a battle field 40 years ago and suffered a lot of damage. When tested for strength, it BROKE at the first notch of the serrations. He had the actual knife to compare it to and take measurements and look at the design details, but not once did he go up to get a closer look.

In another episode, in the final challenge, they had to come up with a fancy guard around the hand…They call it a cage guard.

Basket-hilted sword - Wikipedia

The contestant was trying to weave wires into a cage and he didn’t know how. The wires bent in the wrong places and were uneven on the weave. Had he worked with wire before, he would have known to get a kit that holds the wires in place and keeps them separate and straight. He should have looked that up on jewelry sites. Once you have that, then you can weave them with more accuracy. When he got done, it was amateurish and inaccurate. It was not the $50,000 sword he wanted. The blade worked well. It was strong and sharp and would Cut and Kill. But it was ugly as sin! So it lost.

In Seth’s blog he talks about the 10-year-old that can’t tell the difference between a Sears and a Guarneri violin. I teach violin. We start 10-year-olds listening to get the best sound. They play with their teachers. They listen to soloists. They record themselves. They listen to feedback on how to get a better sound. It’s not the 10-year-old that we worry about discerning the best sound. Joshua Bell can play a Sears violin and get an amazing sound from it because he is trained to. He has adjusted his ear so that his body responds in a way to make the sound he hears in his head. The truth of the matter is that his audience would never be able to tell if he was playing his $14,000,000 Stradivarius or the one you found in your attic. He would get a good sound regardless, But, he’d have to work harder to get it.

If we educate our audience to discern and appreciate the beauty, the efficiency, the design, and the craftmanship, that raises the bar for all those around us. If they can no longer accept mediocre, won’t they try to measure up to their own expectations? If they can’t tolerate “acceptable” and crave the “exceptional,” won’t we try to measure up? Wasn’t this the basis for the free-market capitalism in the beginning?

Have we, in order to make everyone feel like we have a level playing field, lowered our expectations and accepted “good enough” and “passable” for so long that we feel threatened by the marvelous?

Let me tell you something. There are some people with amazing talent out there. But 99% of the people who really shine put in hours and hours of work into what they do. They do NOT accept the merely passable and strive for the exceptional. We see it in Joshua Bell, of course, in Sting, in the Beatles, in Jacob Collier because it’s performance art. But we also see it in architecture, in engineering, in really well-written speeches, in amazing teachers, the finest nurses, the most wonderful garbage men. But in most things–MOST THINGS–excellence is pitied, berated, put down as something useless because nobody will notice it.

NOTICE EXCELLENCE AROUND YOU! Celebrate it! Point it out! Emulate it! Don’t settle for average. Know that only you can be the best you. You cannot be the best Roberta or the best John because it’s Not you. And know that Roberta or John could never be a good you. Not even close.

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