When I was a little boy about eight or nine, I was playing in front of the TV in our Chicago apartment when an old black and white English movie came on. I knew nothing about acting, though I had once played a tree in a skit. But there was one actor on the screen who I could see was remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something special right there on the screen.
What he was doing, how he was acting, the impression he was making made me feel a sensation which I now know was awe. I realized I was watching an extraordinary accomplishment I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed at the man and said, “Who is that, Mom?” She was a movie buff, so she knew. She said, “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of any art.
As I grew older I began to notice examples of supreme mastery all around me: athletes, singers (In my family were many fine singers), pianists, violinists, and auto mechanics. And then, when I went into business and became a management consultant, executives, workers in offices, factories, and plants. And then when I became a professional speaker, spell-binding orators with supreme mastery who could inform you and teach you and move you in a way other speakers didn’t dare dream of.
About the people who perform best, whether actors, dancers, accountants, physicians, executives, sales people, mothers and fathers, chefs, carpenters, athletes, novelists, poets, and playwrights, etc., there’s an ease, an effortlessness. They stand out. You notice them. You don’t forget them. They just do what they do so well and naturally, so charismatically, beautifully, confidently, and with what seems so little effort, that if you stand back and watch them, you have to marvel. You have no choice but to think, “What I am now watching is almost unreal. It is almost super-human.” They do it better and have more ability than just about anyone else you’ve ever seen—better than other actors, painters, or writers, etc.
It’s called yugen in Japanese. Yugen is the “highest principle” in Japanese art—in any country’s art, I think—and the most difficult term in Japanese aesthetics to define. It’s the creation of grace and beauty–the mark of great ability of men and women who have reached highest attainment in their art, their craft, their occupation. There is “Grace of music,” “Grace of performance,” and “Grace of the dance.” There is the grace of any of the arts.
Yugen is “the something behind the gesture” of a great craftsman. It’s described poetically as the emotion you feel watching a bird slowly crossing the moon at night, or the ease with which a flower grows, or one of my favorite sensations which you might have experienced, that of wandering on and on in a deep forest with no fear and no worry and no thought of turning back.
No element of the yugen performance is wasted or done without purpose, and it’s something to behold. You can think right now of people you’ve seen, of people you might know, possibly you yourself, and be able to say something like, “If ever a person possessed yugen mastery it was Ms. Cartwright, my fourth grade teacher,” or Jessica Lange in Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or yourself, thinking, “When I directed that play,” “When I wrote that novel” “When I danced Swan Lake,” “I had it.”
Everyone is—you are, I am, my wife is, my children and grandchildren are—potentially a yugen person. Aren’t we all more extraordinary than we realize?
If you ask yugen people, they won’t be able to explain exactly what it is they do that makes them different from others in their field because after long periods of practice and development they now do it intuitively, and what is done intuitively cannot completely be communicated to another person rationally. Oh, they have an idea, but can’t quite put their finger on what makes them able to leap up consistently in performance.
Olivier once finished a stage performance which he knew was perfect. Everyone in the company knew it was perfect and when he came off stage they asked, “Larry, how did you do that?” He replied, “I wish I knew so I could do it again.”
If you have that special touch in the work you do, you would be hard put to tell someone who comes to you to be trained exactly what you put into your performance. You say, “I do the best I can.” You’re not being modest. Just honest.
What’s known for sure is that mastery doesn’t happen overnight but is the result of long practice and absorption in the craft. Every person who reaches high achievement in a field will have spent much of his time trying to get better, and better still, and will have reached highest ability via a long process of learning and application while pushing himself upward to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness.
When you’re coming into your own artistically you are discovering in all its detail your most creative self of all the selves you might have been. Sometimes a person who one day will become a writer, artist, actor, or dancer doesn’t know himself what he might do. But he feels instinctively that he’s good for something and has some reason for existing. He has a hunch that there is something important in him that’s worth pursuing further. He finds that something in art. He makes himself into a writer, for example–an expert in expressing himself via written language.
Coming into your own, you are developing your skills and yourself to their peak. You are increasing the depth and breadth of your knowledge of your chosen field. You are developing deep-felt, deeply-woven identity that everyone recognizes as the real you. You are on a creator’s Life Path. Just imagine the fulfillments the Path will lead you to.
Mastery is revealed in everything the person does, down to the smallest detail. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp said she could decide if a dancer was right for her company even by the way he came through the door of the studio and put down his bag. The opening scenes of a really skillfully-written play or the first leap of the dancer tell you right away if this artist has yugen. If so, settle back, you’re in store for something marvelous.
© 2017 David J. Rogers
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24 responses to “Achieving Mastery in Creative Work”
I love the richest and beauty of your vocabulary
David,and your “yugen” of course.
Marilucas, Thank you very much for your kind words.They are much appreciated.I hope you’re having a good day, and maybe doing some writing.
Beautiful article. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote about people who were masters of Life: “Everything about them was different. They could not even fling themselves into chairs without suggesting by the very posture of their limbs a certain lordliness, a leonine indolence. There was elbow room in their lives.” (from That Hideous Strength)
Thank you for sharing.
Curioushart, thank you for the compliment. I love that quotation from C.S. Lewis. I can picture the person he’s describing so well. I noticed on your blog that you also quote Trollope on a topical subject. You seem to have knowedge of writers and the ability to see the application of their work to what you’re thinking about. That’s a talent in itself.
Another enjoyable read. Thank you David.
Thanks, Ros. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for letting me know.
Good morning David,
This past week I watched a superb documentary on BBC 4 TV entitled ‘kew’s Forgotten Queen’ – it focused on the life story of Marianne North who during her life changed the face of botanical research in the most extraordinary way. Marianne North is an excellent example of someone who, working against many obstacles, achieved mastery in her her field.
Her work exemplified concentrated and disciplined practise.
Learning how to learn is key….which includes avoiding distractions, something that in our time is becoming more and more difficult. However, when someone knows what their path in life is…..it becomes much easier to cut out all the flim flam and get on with the necessary job at hand….and if indeed that knowledge is concrete….it is with great joy and enthusiasm that an individual approaches their work.
I have found that during my own career, there have been moments of awakening to new levels, shifts in the way I perceive daily life and my work, and key to that is following my intuition. I know instinctively when I am bucking my path, because I feel emotionally and physically unwell. My body and mind tell me to regroup.
I really enjoy your blogs because they remind me of so much….and indeed awaken in me new ideas and thoughts. I will share this blog, as I believe it will be as helpful to others as it is to me.
On an entirely different note, my daughter was in Chicago last week on business, and said it felt like summer time…temperature wise…amazing.
Janet, Thank you for reblogging my post. I appreciate it. It draws attention to my writing and I get to meet your friends.
I would like to see that documentary on Marianne North. In what way did she change botanical research—sounds so interesting.
We’re in agreement that success in the arts is largely a matter of discipline, less so talent, though talent helps. You’re point is well taken that creative people are in an on-going battle to be efficient. So they find it is difficult not to be aware of the clock—that time has wings-and too much of it is wasted.
We’re so alike. I trust my intuition too. I am working on a 2,000 word piece now that I have gone over more and made changes in more than a hundred times. But my intuition told me it just wasn’t right. My wife would laugh as I sent her draft after draft, never satisfied. But just yesterday I realized a paragraph was out of place. I moved it and voila—it was finished.
My wife really doesn’t believe me.
Thank you for your friendship and our chats. It isn’t possible to describe the range of insights an expert artist like you has acquired and shares with your readers in your posts.
P. S. You know how Chicago winters are. A business associate was coming here from New York one winter. I told him to bundle up, wear layers of clothes because it was going to be very cold—Chicago cold. He said, “I’m from New York. You don’t have to tell me what cold is.” Well he came to town and the wind chill was about sixty below zero, the winds howling, when we walked across downtown. When we reached our destination he was frozen stiff and said, “I’ve never experienced anything like this.” But your daughter is right. The weather here this year–75 degrees F–summer weather in the dead of winter–is startling.
Good morning and yes I would agree that we are alike in many ways….and I understand completely about finding the right paragraph….when everything falls in to place with the writing and with the writer 🙂 With all the new changes in my life this year – I had a bathroom renovation done in January (scheduled for last October but Mother was so ill I postponed) Anyway it has been the perfect time to do it, because that spurred me on to do a monumental spring clean…way way overdue. However, now, I am feeling so free and can see that my thinking, working everything else will be much better . because of it. I do know how cold it can be in Chicago, and so enjoy the spring temps…I am looking forward to warmer days myself. Happy writing…janet.
Janet, a long time ago I read a book titled “The Student’s Guide to Intellectual Work.” The author, a priest, was interested in how to work most productively–the subject was work. He studied artists and other creative people in particular, and one of the first things he found was that the fundamental requirement for efficient work by these creative people was a comfortable work space. To others, the space might appear messy, but to the artist, if it’s comfortable, that’s the place he or she should work.
My work space is always messy to other people, but perfect for me. I’m happy your space is right for you and that you’re being productive. I also hope your weather does warm up and is pleasant.
I forgot to say why Marianne North had changed the course of Botanical research. As an artist, she tricked into the wildest of places, i.e. Borneo (and remember this is over 100 years ago) and painted in oils the flora and fauna she found. There are several species named after her as she was the first to record them. Her work is not the normal botanical art that we think of…but rather full of colour and life…and actual paintings of the plant in question and it’s surroundings. To see the gallery at Kew Gardens in London – (not too far from where I live), is quite something. I visited it about 24 years ago and was bowled over then, but now I understand fully the story of this woman’s life, I recognise what an amazing artist/pioneer she was. If you google her I am sure there are pictures of her work at Kew, etc. As for my work space…oh it does feel good to be able to put my fingers on whatever I need.:) Still cold, windy and rainy but spring will soon be here, and despite weather there are spring flowers everywhere.
Janet, thank you for telling me more about Marianne North’s fascinating life. I did look her up and was impressed with her. I saw the museum and learned that she had no formal training and was unconventional in her methods. Now when I hear someone is self-taught and unconventional I’m ready to like them. What fun it must have been for her to discover a plant and then to be able to paint it. What fun it must be for you to be able to look at something and to be able to paint it.
I’m happy you’re so pleased with your space. I wonder if you will be able to see the results in your work itself. I wish your weather was more to your liking, but I suppose weather literally comes with the territory.
It always such a pleasure to hear from you and find out what you’re thinking.
I can feel that bubbling up inside me of the creative juices flowing…..I know you know that feeling…..:) We shall see…..
A wonderful mood for a creative person to be in–something’s brewing.
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This is my first time on your blog site. It seems I have stumbled upon a new
concept, “the yugen performance”, and I feel I am watching it in action by
reading your words. I love to learn new ideas, especially ones which will
assist me in achieving my end goal. You have inspired me to get motivated again and finish writing my book. Thank you, David!
Thank you very much Penny. You seem to be a sincere person so your compliments mean even more to me. I too love to learn new practical ideas, and I try to write about those kinds of ideas.
If my writing inspires you to finish your book I couldn’t be happier. Good luck. The whole idea is to work hard, meet every challenge, and reap the rewards of doing a good job, isn’t it? I hope you’ll visit my blog again and stay in touch.
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Oh, I will definitely be back to visit your blog and stay in touch with you, David. I can already see that you have many new insights to share with me.
Penny, I’m happy I’ll hear from you again. I’m looking forward to our conversations.
A truly delightful discussion, David, celebrating the joys and inspirations of our talented, gifted, and devoted heroes. Your writing is a pleasure to read, masterful.
Thank you, Jet. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, hopefully as much as I enjoyed yours. Thanks for the comment.
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This is a great post David, it is always interesting to read about inspiration, as an artist myself I find inspiration in everything and everywhere. Beautiful reading I enjoyed!
Carolina, I can tell from your versatility that you find inspiration wherever you look. You are serious about your work. I like that. Thanks for your comment.
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Thank you David you see that right! I intrigued by your coming book and wish you all the best!
Thanks again, Carolna, for your good wishes.
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