Collectors- This is the stage where people hunt for new techniques, new ideas. They seriously crosstrain, go to seminars. There are belt collectors and kata collectors and trick collectors. They obsess with expanding their "tool kit", their repertoire. Not all collect the easy, small things- some are driven to amass upper belts and teaching certificates. There are different reasons to be a collector- an insatiable curiosity; a true love of the depth and complexity of the arts are good reasons. Insecurity and a gnawing need to fill imaginary holes with imaginary skills are some of the bad ones (IMO). The ones at this level are usually considered serious martial artists. A fair amount of the famous names in martial arts are right here.
A few go beyond that, though. I call them the strippers. Sometimes a collector learns through bitter experience that it is hard to find a tool in a big, cluttered, tool box. Sometimes they get exposed to the idea that there is this thing called practicality that is separate from coolness. Some take a look at the roots of what they study, the history and find that it was meant to be simple and effective and somehow that has been twisted into complicated and flashy. A few realize (often because they are entering a career where it is no longer a subject of fantasy) that violence is harsh, with high stakes and its own rules and they need something simple enough to be quick and adaptable enough to give them an edge in situations that they never imagined.
The strippers are driven to streamline their stuff. Simplify, simplify, simplify. At the same time, they need to understand a couple of things. They need to understand the problem they are training for and also the underlying principles- what makes things work? To be fast, the principles must be practiced and internalized. Internalize the principles and the techniques are irrelevant. (Not that they don't exist or won't be used, but they cease to take up space in your head and arise naturally from the situation.)
Some strippers focus on a handful of high percentage techniques. Many, at this level become obsessed with mindset.
People at different stages will see martial arts and self-defense differently. The stripper stage, especially when it is triggered by real survival concerns, becomes a 'means to an end'. Unlike a collector, they do not see themselves as martial artists and MA as part of an identity they value, they see their combative skills as a tool that may allow them to survive long enough to protect their true identity, the one that breathes.
A collector sees an infinite series of possibilities. The stripper may see them too, but he is focused on the goal and chooses the fastest, safest way to achieve it.
Strippers happen, but they are relatively rare. In the martial arts, at least. Lots of martial arts are based on 'systems' sometimes with capitals 'THE SYSTEM" and it's not generally welcome when a good practitioner starts taking a system apart and putting it back together smaller and tighter. Stripping is something it is easier to do alone (out of context, this entire post should be hilarious- strippers tossing toolboxes and doing their things alone...) so many of the strippers become ex-martial artists. Still fighters, but on their own, different.
That's a little expanded, but pretty close to what I wrote all those years ago. I had the humility at the time to say that these were the stages I had seen and there might be more. But it was a false humility, because I hadn't seen (more accurately, if I had seen one I didn't recognize it) who was clearly doing things beyond the stripper stage. I thought I was on the top step.
Here it is, the next step, and maybe here it isn't. It may be one of those things where you pass a threshold and there are many ways to deal with it. There may be only one way to the door, but many options on the other side. One more caveat- it is very hard to accurately see yourself or to see where you are...
Given that caveat, I've been applying that stripper methodology to almost everything. I'm still learning a lot, playing around in cultures and skills... but it all boils down. What are the principles? How true can life be? How much bullshit can be jettisoned? It's an interesting place to be. Odds are the next stage will be something very cool.