Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Path to Mastery

"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick." -- Bruce Lee

Consider the following post from the Shutterfinger blog, in which he relates Bruce Lee's philosophical statement with his practice in his chosen art form of photography:

Before you begin learning an art such as photography, the techniques it takes to practice the art are undifferentiated to you. All cameras and lenses look pretty much alike, you're not aware of differences in quality and direction of light, and differences in visual style appear subtle at best.

As you begin to learn the art, however, your mind and awareness begin to expand. You see things you never noticed before. Things that were once unimportant become extremely important. It's easy to become obsessed with a particular style or technique, the Right Way to do something, or owning The Perfect Lens.
You might even look down on photographers who lack your refined knowledge and sensibilities.

If you're fortunate and you stick with it long enough you'll find yourself coming out the other side. Where you were once focused on differences you now begin to look at things more holistically. Equipment and techniques are simply means to an end and your vision is far more important than the tools it takes to achieve it. A camera is just a camera, a lens is just a lens, and software is just software.

In short, the path to mastery is to integrate what you learn so that it becomes as much a part of you as the way you walk, the way you talk, and the way you sign your name. You do them all without thinking and without effort, yet they express more about who you really are than all the clever tricks you know or masks you wear.

This is the truth for anyone seeking to attain mastery of any endeavor. The guitarist who can play a solo without watching his hands, the pianist that closes her eyes while playing a difficult and complex arrangement; the artwork turned out by the skilled hands of the sculptor, the painter, the candlestick maker...all are the results of this journey along 4 stages of awareness. As commenter "Syed" notes at the end of Shutterfinger's piece:

In my first regular job (not related to photography and just fresh out of college) one of the senior guys told me that I would typically go through four stages of development: (1) unconsciously incompetent; (2) consciously incompetent; (3) consciously competent; and (4) unconsciously competent.

There's only one way to get to stage 4: practice. When your tired, sore, wore out, beaten down and on the verge of quitting, you practice some more. This is true of any and every task, hobby, sport, or art you decide to engage in. 

While I was contemplating this topic in the midst of composing this blog entry, another old maxim came to mind - "Those who can -- do. Those who can't -- teach."

That quote has been attributed to a number of sources, including H.L. Mencken.

In terms of teaching subject matter in institutionalized educational systems based on an imposed curriculum from a centrally planned, bureaucratic organization, that quote has a lot of truth to it. It is certainly relevant to the current system of indoctrination carried out by our nationwide public education system.

Despite my regular denunciations of the public education system, I know many public school educators. Many of them are passionate educators doing their best to teach the subjects of their passion. Foreign language, music, writers, mathematicians, scientists and artists. Teachers teaching subjects they love. But as a cog in the great brainwashing machine, all must teach other mandatory classes like "Social Studies" (socialist studies), history, and other courses for which they do not have expertise nor passion, but rather have to teach such subject matters from the "book." In regards to this aspect of the education system in this country, Mencken is absolutely correct.

When it comes to the 4 stages of competence alluded to by the Shutterfinger commenter, I believe Mencken's derogation of the teacher archetype is absolutely incorrect.

Those who cannot do, certainly cannot teach. 

However, the converse is not true. Many practitioners of art forms can personally reach stage 4 of mastery - unconsciously competent - yet cannot teach the techniques knowledge and experience they've gained to a student at stage 1. Many long time practitioners arrive at stage 4 intuitively, in which many hours of practice combined with natural talents allows a person to develop mastery, without explicitly understanding how they got there.

In other words, some talented individuals go from stage 1 to stage 4 over time without really gaining the technical insights of stages 2 and 3. These people we call "prodigies" or "born naturals."

But ask them to teach their art to a beginner, and they fail when their pupil doesn't grasp the nuances and techniques "the natural" intuitively developed.

Indeed, my first martial art instructor had a saying that he always repeatedly told our class, that directly contradicts Mencken's quote - "You never really know something until you are able to teach it to someone else."

When I was a student myself, I didn't really understand this. As a young child, I had participated in a large number of sports and activities that required athletic skill and developing eye-hand coordination. When I came to my martial arts class as a young man, many of the skills and abilities I first developed from prior athletic pursuits, made studying the martial arts easier for me. When I became an instructor, I learned an entirely new perspective. I had to learn everything all over again. To analyze,  ruminate and re-consider aspects of things I had foolishly thought my knowledge of, was complete. 

You think you've mastered some skill or trade? Good. Now teach it to somebody else. You'll find out real fast how much you really know and understand your chosen art form. By teaching others, you will also discover something else: no matter how much of a master you've become, there is always something new to discover and develop in your chosen pursuit. If anyone can claim complete mastery, that they have nothing more to learn - that is when you know the spirit of their personal artistic essence is dead.

The path to mastery is a road that never ends.

I'm not one for enthusiastically quoting vegan pacifists very often, but in the case of finding your passion and pursuing the path to mastery, Mahatma Gandhi said it best:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”


Saurabh said...

Beautiful post! I learned some things and realized some things.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, I'd add one thing. The skills to do a thing well, and the skills to teach that thing, are completely different. I'm sure it would be awesome to get basketball pointers from Michael Jordan, or go over my golf swing with Tiger Woods, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they ever developed the skills to teach those things. They may lack the patience, vocabulary, personal manner, etc that makes one a good teacher, while still being perfectly skilled at the thing they do.
This is why I never really liked the adage from Mencken. It's not a matter of not being able to do it, so you teach it--they are totally different skillsets.

Jack Amok said...

I've used the 4 stages model for years, but I substitute "Motivated" and "Discouraged" for "Unconscious" and "Conscious". When you start something new, you're motivated and excited. As you gain knowledge and discover how incompetent you really are (become conscious) you can get pretty discouraged. But you have to keep plugging away.

Now, as far as teaching goes, I've always thought those who cannot do, only teach. Those who can do, do and teach. The best professors I had in college (Engineering degree) also had active consulting practices outside of school. One guy was the world's expert on evaluating underwater bridge towers. Spent his summers scuba diving and inspecting bridge supports. Walked us through the equations that said the South pier of the Golden Gate bridge better never get hit by a cargo ship lost in the fog.

Anyway, if you do find yourself teaching, or mentoring, remember that 4 stage model for your students. When they're in stage 2, give them encouragement and training (they need skills). When they're in stage 3, give them encouragement (they have the skills, they just don't realize it yet). When they're in stage 4, give them students...

Anonymous said...

This post definitely clarified and put into words something that I had thought about when it came to my own skills.

I'm a natural when it comes to music, and went through the grade levels at a rate of two per year (its designed to be one grade per year)... and yet I could not teach what I know beyond a basic level. I can play by ear, improvise, etc., but I really couldn't teach what I do to another.

And yet, when it comes to driving I was a terrible student - it took me twenty lessons and many hours of practice for me to learn. But now that I'm supervising a learner driver myself, I find I'm pointing out all the technical lessons I was taught, going through each step so as to perfect each manoeuvre.

I suppose the challenge that many a teacher faces is how to handle naturally talented students.

zazendo said...

Excellent post.

As a martial artist myself, I learned so much more thru teaching. It forced me to look at things differently in order to formulate a way to communicate how to learn techniques to my students.

If I couldn't convey what I could actually DO then I had to really examine my self, my learning process, and my techniques themselves in order to come up with something substantial.

The process of teaching is really another way of learning about yourself as one becomes more intimate with the chosen art. Extremely rewarding.

Unfortunately, in the martial arts world(maybe more than other arts, I'm not sure about that tho) there are many so called teachers that prefer to fill their student's heads full of shit in order to foster a dependence. I've never quite liked the notion of "masters" and to the first commenter's point, teaching does consist of a skill set all its own.

The point I think is to give, to open a students mind to possibilities that only they posess the choice in following thru in the hopes that they will learn more about themselves and the world as a whole.

As far as the public school system goes, that, to me, is just a social engineering facility that exists for the sole purpose of turning all children into cogs for the great machine.

Fatmanjudo said...

There is a lot of truth in two other sayings on teaching/learning:

"When the student is ready, the teacher appears."


"If you meet the budda on the road - kill him."
Keep the inspirational posts coming. Too much nihilism and not enough most interesting man in the world posts in the manosphere.

Allan in Portland said...

"Those who can't, teach." Refers to people that lack sufficient talent and get stuck somewhere between consciously competent and incompetent.

They know the subject well enough to pass along the "book knowledge," but they haven't fully internalized the subject such that they can do professional-level work other people would want to pay for.

Anonymous said...

Quick question. Off topic, but on topic.

I have three options for myself and my kids:
1. Karate
2. MMA
3. Boxing

Which one to start with?


Keoni Galt said...

Quick answer: Look for the class in your area with the best class dynamic and most respectable and competent instructor, regardless of the martial art style.

Be especially wary of the McDojo.

Avoid those that seem to be doing it for the money (huge enrollment fees, required equipment purchases, etc.).

Watch a few classes before deciding to join. Get a good feel for the class dynamic and the personality of the instructor(s).

For myself - I'm a huge MMA fan. Have been for a long time now...but I would never join an MMA gym NOW.

It's so popular, it's gotta be the most expensive classes to join.

Also, to spend the money and time on MMA training, the only real point to do so would be to actually become an MMA fighter, because you're training with the constraints of the rules, ring and referee. Unless you or your kids plan on competing, IMO you're better off learning a legit TMA.

Keoni Galt said...

In other words -

Muay Thai
Jiu Jitsu
Kick Boxing
Tae Kwon Do
Krav Maga
Kung Fu

All a good art forms to study - but best done in a good class with a good instructor. There are benefits to be gained from training in any of these styles.

Discipline. Control. Eye/hand coordination. Balance. How to breathe. How to remain calm. How to persevere. These are things that are common lessons and skills you can develop in any martial art discipline. I recommend to any parent to find a good school and enroll their kids. The specific style is not as important as finding a good school with a good class dynamic.

Anonymous said...

Completely off-topic but I cannot help but bring this up ...

Read a book that came out early this year titled "The Tinder Box", subtitled "How Political Correctness Destroyed the U.S Forest Service."

The original subtitle began with "How Feminism destroyed ..." but was changed to avoid direct assault by what author Christopher Burchfield refers to as the "Lace Curtain Brigade" from attacking the book before the ink was dry.

Living in the "Inland Empire" of the Pacific Northwest, a fire-prone area second only to the Manzanita covered hills of western California bellowed by the Santa Anna winds, I have watched the collapse of the F.S. from a relatively competent organization into a female-dominated, do-nothing
organization that embraces the "let it burn" philosophy because there are no men left to do anything that resembles actual "work".

Enjoy the gift of ammunition the book provides, and as you do you shall understand why each and every one of the males still employed by the F.S. told me after reading the work at my suggestion, "I can understand why he (Burchfield) had to wait to write this until after he retired."

Frankly, I'm a bit shocked that no one in the "manosphere" has done a review on this book, but then again, most are engaged in full-time self pity and/or working on their "alpha image" when in truth they are destined to remain "betas" forever because that is who and what they really are.

In the meantime, keep kicking ass.

Unknown said...

Myself, I learned Judo, Jiu Jiutzu, boxing, and muay thai, numerous modern weapons, and police arresting tactics. A little less in Aikido, Hapkido, Thai knife fighting, 14th century Italian broadsword.

However, the best skill I learned was how to speak. Honestly, if you don't care about outcome in anything, you get all of it naturally. Besides, today we are learning that fighting for any woman a crime against one's own life.

Fighting for a woman who has proven she means something to you; that is noble, and albeit extremely rare as only a few women will earn it.

Besides, in most cases the guy you will fight with is a guy you might actually clink beers with if you don't continue. So don't waste your time unless a guy refuses to let it go; then use the martial arts you have learned. You only maim or kill if you know you can absolutely prove you had no option. Unless you are in the military and they complete the "traingle." If you don't know what that means, and you are not military don't worry about it.

To the article, Bruce Lee's quote is exceptional, and uses no real "big intelligent" words. Yet speaks more volumes of wisdom then a fifteen page treatise on the same thing.

Cultures around the wrold use to do this out of necessity because most people were not "well read."

We have gained alot with our current knowledge and systems; yet we have still lost some things.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the guidance. I have only three options, no strip malls here.

I've learned a lot from you, Keoni. Thanks.

MarkyMark said...


I didn't read this when it was new; 2012 was the year Ma died. Anyway, it's a good post on learning and teaching.

I experienced these things as a skater. I can skate as well as I can walk. As a skater, I survived skating the mean streets of NYC. I reached the 'unconsciously competent' level.

HOWEVER, it was only when I taught skating to others that I had to relearn and reexamine everything. That is so true!