A book that aspires to describe perfection better start with a sentence that aspires to perfection.
This is how Mind Over Water begins: "In the darkness, deep in silence, the lights --- green, red, a few of white --- surge ahead, in the rhythm of breathing."
If this were a class, Butler could riff for 10 minutes on that line. For now, let's leave it at this: You're in a long, narrow boat, with a skin that's just one-sixteenth of an inch thick and oars that extend fifteen feet. It's 5:45 a.m. on an October morning in Boston. It's chilly. And you are about to begin a race that is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. On a Tuesday morning. Before work. Just for fun.
Okay, Craig Lambert, a veteran oarsman and a stylish writer, is a little bit crazy. Well, so are the best rowers. And so is Harry Parker, the Harvard crew coach whose exploits first got Lambert, a gifted amateur, interested in writing professionally about the sport.
You never heard of Harry Parker? He'd be thrilled. Recognition is the least thing he cares about. He's single-minded about something else: winning. And win he does. He became Harvard's crew coach in 1963, when he was just 27. For the next 6 years, Harvard did not lose a single intercollegiate race. His crews won 18 consecutive races against Yale. His winning percentage from 1963 to 1997 is .806 --- he is, very probably, the most successful coach in any sport in the whole and entire world.
Harry Parker has some voodoo wisdom that Craig Lambert has absorbed. And then there are the home truths Lambert's picked up himself along the way. Some samples:
"Speed demands that we risk our balance. Velocity comes with volatility... That which is stable is slow."
"Being part of a crew makes the individual shine; in rowing you pull harder and longer that you could ever alone because everyone else in the boat is depending on you."
"My years of rowing in eights [eight-man boats] convinced me that to succeed in this world we must be willing to do whatever is required despite what our mind says."
"Sometimes the best response to stormy weather is to unleash your own tempest. It is one way to restore equilibrium."
"Grabbing an early lead costs energy, an expense that may later haunt the front-runner... In practice, Parker would remind his rowers that when opponents jump out in front, you must make them pay the price."
"To build a winning crew, select the right athletes, place them in the proper seats, and allow for the freedom to create. In other words, hire the right people for the right jobs and manage with a long, loose leash."
If you're employed in almost any organization Butler can imagine, he'll bet that last idea is one you'd like to print out and slip under the boss's door. That's light years away from the sport of rowing --- and yet it's not New Age, hippy-dippy sloganeering. What it is, Butler submits, is writing at a level we're not used to seeing very often: prose that yokes close observation of the real world with deep wisdom about the world inside.
"We are out here in the darkness to reveal ourselves, to discover who we are," Lambert writes. "With the oars, we attempt things that we cannot do, we confront that which is beyond our capacities. Mind over water. The shells transport us into the unknown."
It almost makes you want to get out there some early morning and see how far, how fast, how smoothly you could make a boat --- or, really, your life --- go.