30 January 2006

Levels of the Game.

Roger Federer’s crushing win in the Australian Open reminds me of the best tennis book I’ve ever read, Levels of the Game. That 1969 book profiles tennis pros Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner using the lens of a big match between them at the U.S. Open. The point of the title is that tennis is a game of levels, such that duffers can’t beat good club players, good club players can’t beat their own club pro, that club pro can’t beat a low-ranked touring player, and so on. While Marcos Baghdatis showed how an inspired player can perform over his head for a week—or, who knows, even make a real shift to a new level of performance—he also showed that, as of today in the world of men’s tennis, there is the level on which Federer plays and then there are other, lower levels where everyone else plays.

I am in the business of making judgments and giving advice. As a teaching assistant, I do this in a formal way, by grading undergraduates’ papers and answering questions during office hours. With my friends and coworkers, I carry out the same function informally. Whether my advice is much good, I can’t say, but I do seem to be wired to (try to) help. So if some of my posts here sound like advice columns, I come by it honestly.

In my other roles, however, I’m often the one in need of advice. As a doctoral student, I’m on the lower rungs of the academic profession; the same is true in my business career. People compliment my writing, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Haven’t Written a Book; people say I could make a great professor someday, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Don’t Have a Ph.D. Writing a book or earning a Ph.D. aren’t the be-all and end-all of anything, but until I do them, I playing at a lower level of the game than those who have done them.

Weak undergraduates can take guidance from better undergraduates. The better undergraduates can take advice from even novice graduate students. Some novice grad students in my department take advice from me, because I want to help and because I’ve been around the block. I seek out advice from advanced graduate students and from any faculty member, no matter how junior. Junior faculty look to senior faculty for guidance. Senior faculty, even if they don’t ask for advice, still have to look up to the stars of their field. Understanding my place in this chain keeps me humble. Sometimes I have to scold an undergrad who won’t hand in work on time, or who didn’t study for the midterm; at other times, I’m the one who deserves scolding from my betters.

It is also humbling to watch someone as good as Federer perform in his own sphere. We can predict that his tennis career will be over a lot sooner than my writing career, but for now, even though he’s a decade younger than I am, he’s better at tennis than I’ve ever been at anything. The point isn’t to berate myself for being “behind,” but rather to use high performers like Federer or the stars in my own fields as inspiration to do better today and tomorrow than I did yesterday and the day before. (See, now I’m giving myself advice. I spread it around liberally.) If I can mimic Federer’s “uncanny ability to block out distractions,” so much the better.

Any competitive field will have levels to its game. If we have our heads on straight, we can regard these levels not as barriers to upward progress, but as goals to be pursued. Even with all his success, Federer is only halfway to the total of Grand Slams won by Pete Sampras, and beyond that there are still other levels to be attained. Upon reaching the top of the field, there is the challenge of staying there -- and then there is the greater challenge of competing with the legacy of the best of all time.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and I'm a long way from being called the Rod Laver of anything. So if you'll excuse me, I need to go work on my game.

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