Monday, April 12, 2010

True Believers

Most martial arts students, on some level or other, are ‘true believers’. They believe that their chosen art or instructor is ‘IT’ whatever ‘it’ means to them. It must be the best, of course… otherwise, they would be doing something else.

Sometimes it is naïve—can a six-year-old in a “Little Tigers” class really evaluate how good his training is?

The question of best can never be objective anyway. Best for what? There are world champions teaching MMA, or people with deep ties to ancient schools who are available in the west, or people who have survived extensive levels of violence. There are also people with incredible fitness training regimens or philosophies or spiritual awareness. And there are teachers who just make you feel great to be training. Which of those is ‘best’?

There is a qualitative difference I’m trying to narrow down, because it seems that there are two different groups of ‘true believers’. By True Believer, I mean people with at least a little of the fanatic in them, the ones who don’t see it as just a hobby but part of their identity. Cross that with the belief that whatever they do is the ‘best’. That’s what I mean.

Most of the time when I see this I’m not impressed. It seems tribal and close-minded. When (what I consider) dysfunctional TBs get presented with something new, something outside their experience, they close their eyes and stick fingers in their ears. They put extensive effort into explaining why they don’t need to listen to that source.

That’s a big clue there—if you ever find yourself discounting the source instead of the arguments, you are in your emotional brain. That is primate tribal thinking.

Dysfunctional TB’s get defensive.

There are some extraordinarily cool schools that also are pure True Believers. Emerald City Judo up Seattle way comes to mind. Bob Wittauer runs a good dojo. They work hard and they play hard and it feels like a big family. When you are invited in as an outsider, it is with open arms. Even if what you do is not what they do, even if what you teach contradicts things that they believe in.

The last weekend spent with Fit and Fearless Krav Maga in Austin felt the same way. They train hard. Bruises are daily, bleeding is pretty common too, and my god they sweat. (Blood, sweat and tears makes for a perfect training session, IMO). They are unabashed that what they have is the best… and they can simultaneously work, with open minds and hearts, to make it better.

F&F had the same family feel as Emerald City, or that Mark Moy and Scott Dinger bring to their training. They all produce loyal students—who are fierce.

I made a comment about “lions that leave rabbit tracks” in an earlier post. I can think of some excellent practitioners who seem to be thoughtful and intelligent teachers, but who have never produced students that excelled them. And I can think of some who only produced people who were afraid to win, more timid than when they started.

Family feeling with hard work? Instructors who are not merely competent and demanding but also loving? An expectation that the next generation will be the evolution, that they are not only expected to carry the torch but to carry it higher and farther? Is that all the difference? Is there more? What?


Steve Perry said...

Good post, good points, well-made.

One I wonder about: Suppose you are a world-class player -- as good as any, better than most -- wouldn't that affect how long it might take for one of your students in your discipline to catch and surpass you?

As a for instance, let's say you are in the top 2% of folks who do what you do. (Using "you" generically, and it doesn't matter that the discipline is, could be martial arts, bull-riding, physics, or juggling, pick something. If you are already world-class and you aren't losing any steps, isn't somebody who joins the parade after you going to have to walk a while before s/he reaches the spot where you are now? And won't you have moved on?

I can see that if you at your peak at, say, forty, that by sixty or seventy, the young guns might be about to blow past, but then again, maybe not, if you are learning to fight smarter and not harder.

Old and treacherous, young and strong, etc.

Eventually, there's a half-life that will run down. Somebody will get better, in your class or elsewhere, but while you are the champ, isn't everybody else a contender?

Teaching somebody everything they know isn't the same as teaching them everything you know, and if you don't stand still but keep marching, is it realistic to expect a newbie to catch you any time soon?

Just a thought.

Irene said...

I think that advanced academic fields hold the same expectation that you do. The student is EXPECTED to surpass his teacher.

After all, if a teacher has spent, say, ten years learning something new, he should certainly be able to transfer that knowledge to his students in much less than ten years. Otherwise, he ain't much of a teacher (because his students are essentially having to learn it all over again, from first principles, the same way he did.)

But a professor is also expected to be teaching his students how to learn, how to discover new things, how to surpass him. If he doesn't, again, he ain't much of a teacher.

So for example, if my professor holds four Nobel prizes and is at the very top of his field: I am expected to benefit from his experience, his knowledge, and his training, and to take that knowledge further than he ever did. It is his role as a teacher to make sure I am able to do that. And it is my responsibility as a student to take what he has given me, and to advance upon it, to exceed the limits that he ran into.

In dance, say, you see it over and over again, a brilliant dancer and coach teaches students who become far greater than their teacher. They give credit to their teacher, acknowledge that without their teacher's training they would not have reached the heights they did, but they do not consider their teachers to be their superior.

Why doesn't this work in martial arts?

Travis said...

"Why doesn't this work in martial arts?"

Ego. Protecting the rice bowl. Many traditional martial arts are composed of the exercises that you taught children to develop the attributes to later build a good fighter. When you go to an average school and learn forms and one steps and spend an hour doing "rear-leg retreating step down block" you're doing the equivelent of fourth grade math. Well of course most people don't progress, they haven't learned enough to actually get to the real learning.

Sorry for the rant.

Parker Westbrook said...

Not sure why/how Jeff (the owner of Fit and Fearless) has created a culture at our school which is so open to outside influence, and why he leaves such big lion prints.

I can say a few things about him/us that I suspect will also be true of the other schools you spoke so highly of:

*He has a very strong bullshit detector. If a technique (or a person) is bullshit, there's no reason to keep it. Conversely, if something works, why not take advantage of it?

*The system itself is constantly being revised and adapted, adding to a culture of striving to continually improve by any means available.

*Jeff has a great deal of confidence, personally. That prevents him from having to one-up his instructors to show who the big dog is. He tends to surround himself with people who also have that trait. Because we know we are good (ahem)we can take pleasure in seeing others succeed, and having a hand in their success. It also allows us to fail sometimes without feeling that all is lost. And it allows us to recognize good when we see it in others, and to learn from them.

*By the way, Rory, don't bother to get The War of Art. I've already ordered you a copy and will send it to you as soon as it arrives. We all can't wait to train with you again!


Steve Perry said...

Two things: I'm curious as to how many teachers with four Nobel prizes have produced students with five such awards. Not to say that isn't a laudable goal, but wondering how often it happens?

Or guys with one produce students with two, which is more realistic.

You are an Einstein or Hawking, how many students have to pass through you to come up with one who surpasses you?

Not everybody has the potential to become world-class at a chosen activity. They might be good, but while all men and women should be equal under the law, the truth of nature is that they aren't equal in genetics, and world-class anything selects out those who can and those who can't.

If you are six-four and your best fighting weight is two-ten, you aren't ever going to be a world-class jockey riding a winning horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Likewise, if you built like Eddie Arcaro, throwing the shot-putt in the Olympics isn't likely to be in your future.

Physics tends to be a young person's game. A lot of brilliant minds seem to have done their best work by the time they are thirty, and after that, they don't make as many giant leaps.

Likewise with an all-out physical activity, such as dance or track & field or boxing or basketball. The old guys in those don't have the pure strength and skill to keep with the young dogs on that basis. The old man on the Portland basketball team is thirty-six. His skills and experience keep him competitive, but he doesn't have the same legs he once had.

So yeah, the day comes when he can't keep up.

But: You know the ten thousand hour theory. If, say, your teacher in a martial art has ten thousand hours on the day you walk into the school and is world-class, and doesn't continue to practice and learn assiduously, then you'll blow past him eventually.

But if he does train as hard as you do, continues to refine what he knows and learns more from other folks, then by the time you have ten thousand hours, he has twenty thousand hours.

Does that not matter?

Granted, there is a point of diminishing returns, where more time doesn't equal great ability, and there an age arc that takes away some of his physicality. But you see my point?

Eventually, your best student may beat you -- if you don't keep moving and she does. But until you slow down, how does she catch up?

Master Plan said...

So the 10,000 hours thing. Obviously an approximation. More important (I think) is that it's a stand-in for "mastery". Which...means what?

Two 15,000 hour players wearing identical twin bodies have a go...somebody wins, right? Was it the extra 2 hours? Mindset?

Are 10,000 MORE hours (20,000 in total)twice as good as a mere 10,000? Or are you just polishing a polished plate at that point?

What about 15 hours versus 30?

Does it have to take me 30 hours to learn what took you 30 hours to figure out on your own? Or can you help me do it in 15? Or even 5?

And if you teach me something that took you 30 hours in 5 hours and then I teach it to somebody in 2 hours...have I 'beaten' my teacher? Or do I just have a good student on my hands?

It could take me years to develop my own martial arts form, but I could probably show the entire thing to a person in much less than that.

How much of it is more ways of thinking, moving, etc, rather than mechanical skills. I can show a person how to put together and take apart a computer w.o. ever giving them any idea how any of it works at all. Just "slot A, tab B" type stuff.

Does surpassing your teacher ONLY mean "beating the crap out of them in a fair fight"? Or might it mean "being a better teacher" or "having more mediocre students instead students"?

And so on. I always find these (particularly in the context of MA (not so much in SD)) horribly fuzzy questions.

Also I suspect that 'good' schools are self-selecting, if you ain't got the attitude you'll stop coming, so then if those that keep coming are the 'good' kind of True Believers it the teacher? Or just the group dynamic selecting for those that train harder?

Steve Perry said...

Fuzzy, yes, and all things are seldom equal, and what constitutes mastery is sometimes a thorny question.

Does it take 10,000 hour to master something? Probably not, it depends on the thing. One experiment with two or three-move chess problems showed that average chess plaers drilled in that alone could keep up with grandmasters doing the same problems, after as little as fifty hours.

But the guys learning the three-move problem solving couldn't beat the masters in a game.

Even naturals at something need a lot of practice to achieve world-class ability. How much might vary, but it's how you get to Carnegie Hall ...

Doers aren't necessarily the best teachers and vice-versa.

And it's not this simple, but here is a wonder at the validity of it for me: If we are in a long distance race and you give me a couple hours head start and we run at the same speed? You never catch me. If you speed up or I run slower, yes, but it will take a while.

The tortoise doesn't beat the hare unless the hare stops to take a nap. Slow and steady beats fast and erratic, but it doesn't beat fast and steady.

Some of the great teachers may have students who will be better artists or teachers some day, but it would seem that to do it will take longer if the teacher keeps getting better, too. At least until those limits are reached.

Ueshiba might have been a much better player than a teacher. Certainly he kept playing for a long time.

How many Einsteins and Hawkings have there been?
Maybe a few, and maybe a few more in the pipeline now, but if your teacher paints the Mona Lisa, what are you going to have to paint to be considered his equal -- or his better?

Rory said...

Good discussion. I think there are some false sorts creeping in. Academics and physics, etc. Einstein never produced another Einstein if you are looking at moving back barriers. But Einstein did create a base so effectively that much of what he discovered is now undergraduate study. The pioneers move the cutting edge, but then make it accessible.

So what Einstein did may (I'm making the following numbers up) have taken twelve years of higher education and thirty years of research, but people are now getting it in four to eight years of higher education.

For one example from martial arts-- understanding power generation was picked up over twenty-five plus years of different systems (hip, weight transfer, drop step, wave actionx2, bone bounce, snapback, dead hand technique, dead body technique, fa jing, ballistic, structured ballistic, structure, whip, environmental, the sosuishi special, rotation, concentric rotation and probably some others that don't come to mind right now).

It takes about two hours to show a fairly gifted athlete how to do most of the important ones and how to stack them for combined effect. That, in my opinion, is what teaching should be. I do the twenty years so that you don't have to...

The chess master analogy applies to martial arts, possibly, but it applies poorly to survival or fighting. Simply put, only amateurs try to increase their complexity in survival fighting. Good fighting is dead simple. that's efficient.

The same, but the opposite, with the race analogy. It's not a race and I would submit that the sign of a terrible teacher is that he wants you to do everything he did the way that he did it. That is preserving tradition, not transmitting knowledge. Einstein's students were not required to memorize all of his equations that failed just so that they could say they walked the same path as the master.

It's further complicated by the fact that survival fighting is a very complex subject to understand but requires ruthless simplicity to deal with. It is easy to teach trivia and convince students that you are teaching secrets.

Thanks, everyone. There's a lot more here for me to think on.

Irene said...

The distinction that I meant to highlight with regards to academics is the _expectation_ that the student will surpass the master. Sure, for those top 2% of Einsteins, maybe they won't. But both students and professors (for the most part) go into the relationship with the _assumption_ that they will. Frankly, there's very few Einsteins out there, just like there's very few Bruce Lee's. For the vast majority of professors, like the majority of martial artists, I think that there is opportunity for the student to surpass the master, but only if he believes that he can.

Whereas I see many folks in the martial arts field who go into their training with the assumption that their teacher will ALWAYS be better than they are. And teachers who assume that their students will never be their equal. If you have that assumption, odds are good that you will be right.