On Perfection and Efficiency / by Edmund Milly

In pursuing my goals, I have often been guilty of dispensing with some of the niceties of the process; rather than attempting to find a way around the mountain, I will try to tunnel through it, and waste resources in the process. Stretching didn’t seem to make me a faster runner, so I’d just skip it and pile on more mileage. Similarly, gigs are a way to learn and practice while making money, so why should I care if my schedule left me little time to practice vocal technique on my own?

Some people are too fixated on an abstract notion of perfection to ever get anything done. My problem is that while I get a lot done, I don’t think I’m focused enough on developing perfection.  I can crank out an impressive amount of product of a consistently “good enough” quality, but my ethos towards training and practicing – and even towards writing – has often been more akin to how I imagine a company like Honda than to, say, Ferrari, or the Apple of 10 years ago.

And you know what? I’m generally OK with that. You may not think that the Honda brand is very sexy, but maybe your idea of sexy is misguided. They make things that work – things that are even weirdly perfect in an understated way, like Ikea’s Stefan – and what’s more, their products are renowned for their longevity. 20 or 30 years from now, when I’m still singing and running, I’ll be very happy if I’m still outsinging and outrunning a large percentage of the field, even if I’m not always “number one.” The new iPhone is beautiful for a minute, but it is designed to be tomorrow’s garbage; Honda motors run for ever. Ikea and Honda may not be compelling examples, but what about J.S. Bach or Palestrina? If you get acquainted with the vast repertoires those men produced, you will realize that they had a system, they were efficient, and they knew how to crank that product out.

But. Every once in a while, even we, the efficient producers, have to take the time to slow down and rethink our approach. When I was marathon training last summer, the only thing I cared about was grinding out 70-80 miles per week, by any means necessary. It’s clear to me now that neglecting the many small forms of physical therapy that necessarily complement such training did me a great disservice, one that took my body months to recover from. I am very happy to report that that recovery is finally complete, and I think I’ve learned a lot from it, albeit “the hard way.” I PR’d in every race distance last summer, but my quantitative outlook on training ultimately cost me.

It turns out that increasing your weekly mileage isn’t the only way to improve as a runner. I’m now in my fourth week at 42 MPW and feeling great, with no plans to add mileage anytime soon. Why? Because I have a lot to work on before I can sustainably add mileage. For the first time in my life I have a daily, comprehensive post-run stretching routine, and it’s eliminated some of the leg and back pain I was experiencing. I’m also doing a short mat routine every day: twice a week it’s yoga with a focus on my psoas, twice a week core and back exercises, and twice a week calisthenic strength workouts. It took a long time to own up to the fact that if any one of those elements is missing, my health suffers a little.

In addition to all that, I’m including in every week one tempo run covering about 9% of weekly mileage, and one speed session, also 9%. The other 82% of my distance is made up of easy runs where my heart rate doesn’t at any point exceed 151, and preferably stays close to 140 the whole time. That’s a lot of variables to juggle, and while I have come close, I have yet to nail every one of them in the same week. Striving for the “perfect” 42-mile week has me feeling healthy and fit, and I see no reason I shouldn’t be chasing PRs at a couple of shorter distances within a few months.

There is a pizza place at Nostrand and Fulton which - on a good day - makes what I think may be one of the best $1 pizza slices in the world. Their profit margin has got to be tiny, with three people working 24 hours a day to sell these $1 slices, no matter how cheap the ingredients they use (and I’m sure the ingredients they use are cheap). It’s just hard in today’s economy to get that much dough, tomato sauce, and mozzarella for less than a dollar. So how do they succeed? Probably because they’re moving epic amounts of pie every day. Every time I get a slice, there’s a fast-moving line, and the pie has literally just come out of the oven. I’ve had enough slices from this place to be familiar with the subtle variations and the average quality, and I’ll be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been perfect. But in the past few months, I’ve noticed a trend: their pizza is getting better and better. More even cheese distribution. Improved crust. Perfectly baked. Those guys are not just complacently collecting $1 bills, they’re on to something. They’re honing their craft. And that’s not just delicious, that’s inspiring. As poor as I am, I look forward to the day when they’ve stepped it up to such a degree that they start charging $2 a slice. If dollar pizza can claw its way to the top, so can I.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

My friend Hasan, the erstwhile proprietor of another noteworthy pizza place of my life, Avelino’s in Fair Haven, once told me that he would have preferred to open a Turkish restaurant, but he thought pizza would be a more reliable business venture. Once, when I was answering some of his questions about what it’s like to make a living as classical singer, he told me to make pizza. “Not actual pizza,” he clarified: what he meant was that I should take care to offer a product that a large audience will need and want. Whether or not Bach’s sacred vocal works possess enough of the universal appeal of pizza to sustain a career remains an open question, in my opinion. One thing, however, is for sure: in pizza, in music, and in marathons, attention to detail matters.