If there’s one thing you can find plenty of in the martial arts, it’s arrogance. I should know, because I used to have my fair share of it when I was younger (some would say I still do, but I digress…) but have had to eat humble pie a wee bit too often since those days. So I no longer cling to that inflated sense of ego I once had. Does that make me humble? Perhaps it does, though I think it’s for others to decide if me becoming less arrogant automatically means I become more humble. The way I see it, I simply became more realistic about my skills and knowledge. As in, back then I overrated myself and underrated others. Today, I think my view of myself and others is more accurate.
The main reason I changed my mind is that I got in touch with teachers, martial artists and warriors who were vastly superior in their field than I was in mine. I already mentioned a couple of them in the past but for those who missed that, here they are:
Bob Orlando When I first got Bob’s books and videos, I was impressed by both his martial ability and his teaching style. His techniques were not only crisp and clean, he explained them and made everything clear in a way other teachers seem unable to copy. I invited him twice to Belgium for a seminar and discovered that he’s an awesome guy in person as well. I learned a lot about humility and perseverance from him.
Dan Docherty I met Dan at a seminar shortly after starting to learn tai chi with my main teacher, Patrick Couder. The most impressive thing about him was how he moved just right every single time he did a technique. His body mechanics, footwork, timing, angles, everything was just as it should be with nothing lacking nor any unneeded parts added. But over the years, I discovered just how unique his blend of skill, knowledge and experience truly is:
- He’s fluent in English (obviously) but also French, Mandarin and Cantonese. This includes writing and calligraphy.
- He competed successfully in the full-contact tournaments of those early days.
- As a police officer in Hong Kong, he accumulated tons of experience using his art in real-life situations.
- He spent decades doing research on his art, translating ancient texts on it as well as seemingly unrelated manuscripts.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no other tai chi chuan teacher in the world who has that specific blend and the unique perspective it yields. From training with Dan and spending time with him outside of the training halls, I learned just how much I didn’t know about the arts and how much more work I need to do to even get close to his level of skill.
Loren W. Christensen I met Loren on-line and we struck up a conversation by accident. We got along great right away and as our friendship grew, he also became a mentor. Some of my fondest memories of him are of the both of us cruising downtown Portland and him telling stories of all the incidents he had there as a police officer. It’s one thing when he describes those in his books, it’s quite another getting a live account as you roll up to the spot where it happened.
What Loren taught me was a perspective on self-defense and martial arts that was both practical and no-nonsense due to his enormous amount of experience in the streets, while still being connected to some of the more traditional aspects of the arts. In many ways, he is a modern samurai, blending the old and new for today’s world.
I learned a lot about how to train and what to focus on from him. But perhaps the most important thing was how he never treated me like the young upstart that I was when we first met. Despite being my senior in both years, knowledge and experience, he routinely asked my opinion and respected it. He not once called me “boy” or even hinted at “just do as I say because I know best.” which is a far cry from the treatment I got from others with far less of a pedigree. In short, he taught me that you can be very skilled and experienced while still being a good person towards others.
These three men influenced me the most to leave my arrogance behind. By their words and deeds, they made me aware of my own limitations. They made me realize I wasn’t all that and therefor I didn’t need to have an attitude. The funny part is that they never mentioned this or even hinted at it. It was a classic case of leading by example.
What I see in today’s martial arts world often leaves me shaking my head. There seem to be more and more people who call themselves “Sensei” this or “Grand-master” that and then insist others do the same. I have no issue with titles but you shouldn’t impose them on others. It feels even worse when people introduce themselves as Master such and such. Then I just want to walk away before I suffocate in the cloud of arrogance that follows them around. Whatever happened to using your first and last name as an introduction?
Invariably, when I see these people in action, they leave me unimpressed with both their skill and knowledge of the arts. This is in stark contrast with the three people I listed before, who have those attributes and then some but they prefer you call them by their first name.
Another trait they typically demonstrate is that they almost always only talk with authority of what they know. They realized a long time ago that you can’t know everything so they don’t pretend to have all the answers. Or they’ll preface their words with the caution that it’s only their opinion and not gospel.
This is actually extremely rare. It seems to be an instinctive human trait to prefer responding to questions we don’t know the answers to instead of admitting to a lack of knowledge. As if there’s something wrong with not knowing everything. If you want to put this to the test, step in on a meeting of a bunch of business executives (pick a firm, any will do, it doesn’t matter) and ask them a question that is clearly outside of their expertise and experience. Wanna bet they’ll answer it anyway? And be convincing too, even though they know full well they’re making stuff up?
This probably comes from the fear of looking bad in front of your peers but in many cases, it’s simply arrogance. Instead of making you look strong and smart in front of others, you end up looking the fool when it turns out your answer was flat out wrong. True strength and wisdom means you are not afraid to admit ignorance. Being comfortable enough with yourself that you can admit somebody else knows more than you do is a personality trait I admire and try to emulate. In fact, it’s at the top of the list I use to value people. That list takes into account how many times people say the following phrases:
- I don’t know.
- I’m sorry.
- I was wrong.
It takes true strength and humility to say hose phrases out lout and mean it. Unfortunately, I rarely hear them from martial artists, especially those who teach or have books and videos for sale. Granted, you don’t sell much if all you say is that you don’t know something. People are paying you for information so you better deliver the goods. But that doesn’t mean you can’t place that knowledge in the proper context by mentioning what it doesn’t cover or what you are not talking about.
Some instructors remain vague on purpose and try to implicitly answer questions so they don’t have to admit they actually have no idea. If the truth does come out, they hide behind technicalities. Others just make stuff up. Either way, it’s pretty arrogant behavior.
What’s the point of all this?
By now, you’re probably wondering what that cure for arrogance in the martial arts actually is. It’s pretty simple:
Confront yourself with how in the grand scheme of things, you are infinitely small and really know only very little.
Once you have the correct perspective I don’t see how you can be anything but humble and honest about your martial skills. Strike that, I do see how you can lie about it but then you have to live with being a fraud and, well, an asshole. Your choice…
In an effort to help you make that choice, I’ll ask you to do two things:
First, visit this website that shows the scale of the universe. Hit the start button after it loads and then scroll to the left. You’ll see just how small things get and how little we know about what goes on at that level.
Then scroll your way back to where you started and keep going to the right. Pause for a second when you see Saturn. At that point, take in the immensity of the space you just covered. The scale should give you pause. Then keep going to the right, all the way to the end…
How about that?
Do you now get a better sense of how incredibly minuscule you and I really are? We’re not even a blip in the space-time continuum. We don’t even register on that scale, just like we humans don’t register neutrinos as they pass through us.
Now tell me again how important your title of Grand-Master is…
Second, take a look at this page about what it means to get a Ph.d. It illustrates my point perfectly.
Please notice how incredibly small the dent is that you eventually make in that outer circle of the body of human knowledge. And that’s after years and years of work.
Also, take a look at the big picture again, at all the knowledge you don’t have and never will.
In case you missed it, here it is:
Now take a moment to think about those two concepts together:
- In a universe that is big beyond your wildest imagination, you and I are insignificant to the point of absurdity.
- In the vastness of the ever growing body of all human knowledge, there will always be an immense part of it you will never have and only a tiny fraction you do understand.
In the face of all this, how can you be anything but humble?
How can you even dare to be arrogant?
I really don’t see how you can.
Now does that mean you should just give up and go crawl under a rock? Not at all. The value of the fleeting life we all have is determined by what we do with it. So no matter how insignificant it may be, it’s truly all we have. So why not make the most of it?
Also, does this mean you can’ t be proud of your accomplishments? Not at all. You should be, because false humility is even worse than arrogance. When you contribute something worthwhile to the world we live in, be happy about it. Feel free to tell others about it or even shout it from the rooftops. Just don’t lose sight of that perspective we just discussed. Enjoy your victory and then move on to the next challenge.
There’s a certain amount of irony in writing a post about arrogance and how you should avoid it. I mean, doesn’t that imply arrogance on my part, that I would presume knowing better than everybody else? Perhaps it does, I’m not sure. All I can offer is that it isn’t my intent, nor how I feel about it. As with everything else I write, I’m only sharing my thoughts and how I see things. I can most certainly be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time.
The one thing I will claim though, is that I didn’t lie to you. I didn’t cheat or cut corners here. If that isn’t good enough for you then I have to parrot Mr. King again: I’m sorry but this, it’s all I have to offer.
One final thought:
Some of you might find it a crushing reality to see how small we are and how little we can know. It is humbling, that’s for sure (which was the whole point I was trying to make…) But I don’t see it that way. For me, this only proves how much more there is to discover. How much more we can learn and find out.
We’ll never, ever get to the bottom of that bucket but that’s OK; just think of all the fun we’ll have along the way…