True Mastery Questions Everything

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He has come up with alterations to techniques that many of his black belt peers denounced. He has made improvements to new styles that his own teachers told him were wrong, despite obvious problems with their old methods. He has discarded apparently useless movements and techniques because nobody could provide an explanation for why they should be taught. Despite all this negative pressure, he trusted what he knows about self-defense and followed his reasoned assessment.

What is most impressive is that he never strikes me as the kind of person that needs to convince anyone. He knows what he knows, and he’s of course willing to teach it to his students, and even demonstrate improvements to his teachers, but if they don’t buy it, that’s their prerogative. I don’t get the impression that he doubts himself at all. When his teachers didn’t accept his suggested improvements on a technique, he stopped trying to convince them. When teaching me the same technique, he showed me both ways and let me decide which I’d rather learn. Even with many of the teachers that he respects telling him he is wrong, he trusts his own interpretation of the world and his art. That is truly courage.

Even more amazing: he is completely open to new ways to do techniques. Not that I’ve ever managed to show him anything, but he’s always willing to let me try. His sense of authority doesn’t come from always being right. Instead, it seems to come from an unwavering commitment to constant improvement. He puts his faith in that commitment, trusting that it will get him to where he needs to be as a martial artist and a teacher, and that gives him the confidence to question what his teachers know, what his peers know, and even what he himself knows.

Trust What You Know

Think about this for a second. If you thought that you had an improvement on something you do everyday, but the top practitioners in your field told you it was wrong to do it that way, would you have the gumption to ignore them and do it anyway, secure in your own interpretation of the situation? I mean, they have much more experience and they are the experts after all. They must know what they’re talking about, right?

Remember, many experts are more motivated to maintain their exclusivity than to improve a particular field of endeavor.

You might be thinking that if everyone did their own thing, there would be chaos.  This is true if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and are just making changes for the sake of being unique (which by the way is what many martial artists do when they want to start their own style).

My teacher didn’t start making these changes until he was a black belt himself, but I think that just makes it more impressive. I imagine being admitted to the rank of black belt implies an association with a group of peers. Nobody wants to threaten that association by questioning the basic tenets of his style. My instructor shows his students what he thinks will best serve their self-protection, regardless of what others say is the best way or the most pure.

Despite spending years mastering the style, he isn’t afraid to take it apart and admit weaknesses and actually do something about fixing them. Basically, he isn’t afraid to undermine the thing his expertise is built on, especially if he can find a way to improve it down the line.

Commit to improving your art, even if that means you yourself will need to relearn, not defending the sanctity of your title or rank.

Wax On, Wax Off

This is what I’ve learned from my Karate teacher: if you know what you’re doing, trust your instinct. If you see something that doesn’t make sense, and nobody provides a good explanation, don’t just take peoples’ word for it because they have a badge, a certification, or a belt. Think for yourself, even if it goes against what everyone else is saying. Very often, they are just saying the same thing because of an unspoken consensus not to rock the boat. Furthermore, don’t assume your way is the best way simply because that’s how you have always done it and it got you to your black belt (or Ph.D, MBA, gold medal, etc.).

You don’t have to convert everyone; my teacher doesn’t try. Just pay tradition its due (it laid the foundation for your expertise after all) and start making waves in your own corner of the pool.

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