On September 17th of this year, the running world erupted when Eliud Kipchoge broke the men’s marathon world record at the Berlin Marathon. Mastery in any domain is mesmerizing, and this certainly was. Kipchoge ran 2:01:39, or a staggering 4:38 per mile. If you are like me, you have never run a single mile that fast. If you are like me, then by comparison, Kipchoge runs like a cheetah, and you run like a lion. A sea lion.
Kipchoge has a stunning reputation for longstanding mastery of the sport and for doing so, as far as we can tell, above reproach. He is the consummate exemplar for distance running—talented, humble, eloquent, affable, perseverant, and brave. I could learn a lot from him.
But after Kipchoge’s performance, my temptation was to be amazed, of course, but then to put him on a pedestal or to set him aside as an outlier, without ever bringing his achievement to bear on my own (comparatively meager) athleticism. I wanted to chock his performance up to rare natural ability, far beyond my own. Since by natural province Kipchoge is exceptional, then I don’t have to feel bad about how unremarkable I am in contrast. Friedrich Nietzsche describes it this way: With respect to the excellent person, “only if we think of him as being very remote from us, as a miraculum, does he not aggrieve us.” (1)
In this column last month, I talked about our fraught relationship with the excellences of other people: We are tempted to envy, rather than to admire, our excellent peers. But let’s be serious: With someone like Kipchoge, Shalane Flanagan, or Kilian Jornet, my temptation is not to feel envy. Envy is a type of presumption: I feel that I am as good, better than, or perhaps more deserving of honors than you. What I feel toward extremely talented athletes is not presumption, but a type of despair. I fail to consider myself worthy of comparison at all.
Unfortunately, if I don’t compare myself to Kipchoge, this is a missed opportunity to learn all of the ways in which I fall short, or to identify needed areas of growth. So, this month, I want to talk this second type of error—the tendency to feel awe, rather than to admire, excellent athletes.
To ‘admire’ is to construe another as excellent in some way (e.g. skilled, determined, kind, brave). (2) Admiration typically elicits emulation of the excellence observed. (3)
In contrast, ‘awe’ is veneration or reverential respect. A person struck with awe is often stunned to passivity. He “sometimes construes himself as lacking personal adequacy to ‘deal with’ the object of awe–to understand or otherwise get control of it.” (4)
Let me anticipate your questions:
1. Why does this distinction matter?
Awe is often inappropriate in the athletic context. We all put our sneakers on and try to run our best, whatever ‘best’ means relative to our abilities. While Kipchoge is far beyond us talent-wise, we have much more in common than not. Think about it this way. You are a sapling. Kipchoge is a redwood. You don’t yet know what kind of tree you can be (a spruce! a ficus! a redwood!). It is possible that the redwood has a much higher ceiling of growth than you ever will. But redwoods start as saplings, too, and they are fantastic at growing. Regardless of the type of tree (athlete) you are, it helps to surround yourself with redwoods (exemplars) in order to learn how they grow so well. Yes, it is more comfortable to compare myself to other saplings, but hey, I want to be a gigantic tree.
If I surround myself with gigantic trees, then two things happen:
- I develop a clearer vision of what greatness is; and
- I am humbled by how far away, and in what ways, I am not great. These are solid grounds for focused, directed personal growth—more so than a diffuse longing to be great without an exemplar showing the way.
2. Isn’t awe the humbler response, since I realize the extent to which Kipchoge exceeds me?
No. You can see someone as great, celebrate that greatness, and want those great things for yourself, all while being humble. Awe in athletics is often the pusillanimous response. (5) For Aristotle, pusillanimity is weakness of soul. I feel so lowly that I do not even aspire to virtue. This is a type of despair, and it is an unprofitable mindset if you want to improve. Maybe it is the case that I will never be a great athlete, but I am going to aspire to great things anyway. At the very least, this will bring out the best version of myself, regardless of how I compare to others.
My suspicion is that the reason we think of the masters in our sport as “very remote from us” or as “a miraculum” in Nietzsche’s words is that we overemphasize natural talent and forget the development they underwent to become champions—development that is open to us.
So, my advice is as follows: If you encounter a master, examine him. Then examine yourself. Articulate the ways in which he exceeds you. Maybe he has more perseverance, fortitude, or kindness. Maybe he has a better arm carriage or a more fluid stride. Then get to work on those exact things. Maybe you can’t be Kipchoge. But chances are, there are enough practiced vices in your person to keep you sufficiently occupied with improvement for a lifetime. Exemplars can show you, through their own excellence, what it is that you are lacking.
3. Are you really a sea lion?
Talent and Habit
“I wish I were as smart as [Professor X].” It’s 7 p.m. in late October. My husband and I are going for our daily school work debrief walk, and I am making a familiar lamentation about my lack of natural intelligence.
It was only because I was working on this essay that I paused to question my statement. The professor in question is a redwood—naturally gifted far beyond myself—and my temptation is to excuse myself from comparison because this person is extraordinary. But redwoods are also great at growing, and I could learn a lot about virtue development from this professor, too.
If I am being honest, what I most need are more intellectual virtues—rather than a greater allowance of natural talent—and this is in my own hands. When I struggle with my school work, it is not generally because I come to the limits of natural intelligence. (Though there are major limits.) It is because I fail to ‘stay’ with an argument. I make imprudent judgments about how to organize a paper. I am inattentive. All of these qualities are habits of mind I can actively cultivate, and this is a more productive framing than ‘wishing’ I were as tall as a redwood.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you think you have admiration or awe for our sport’s greats? Is your understanding of their greatness tangible or intangible? Can you comprehend their greatness in a non-miraculous way?
- Do you find merit in the idea of admiring and therefore emulating the most talented people out there?
- Nietzsche 1996, 86
- Onu, D., Kessler, T., & Smith, J.R. “Admiration: A Conceptual Review.” Emotion Review. Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 2016) 218-230.
- Zagzebski, L.T. (2015). “Exemplarism and Admiration.” Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. p. 256.
- Roberts, R.C. Emotions: An Aid in Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. p. 270.
- Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics IV