As I young child, I watched the Cosmos series presented by Carl Sagan. In many ways, he was instrumental in my development as a martial artist but I wouldn’t realize that until decades later.
I remember being glued to the screen, amazed at the things he showed and explained. He showed just how big a place the universe actually is and how infinitely small people are. We’re only here for a minuscule dot of time in the eternity that came before and will come after us. I remember being terrified by this thought as I lay in my bed trying to sleep and feel a gut wrenching fear at the thought of my own death. It took me decades to make peace with that, so to say that Mr. Sagan had an impact on me is putting it mildly.
I would watch an episode of Cosmos and be fascinated by the things he talked about. Then I would go to the library and look them up, reading as much as possible about that subject before moving on to the next one. When I couldn’t get to the library, I’d read in the 5-volume encyclopedia we had at home (remember, there was no internet or Wikipedia back then.) and look up even more things. But that wasn’t enough. Eventually, I just started reading page one of volume one and kept going until I finished the last page of volume five. And then start over. a few more times. Finally, I started reading in the big dictionaries we had at home. I’m sure my mother must have been worried about that.
In hindsight, Mr. Sagan’s TV show gave me a thirst for knowledge that I have been unable to quench. After more than four decades, I still can’t help myself but be interested in, well, pretty much everything. As a result, I still read a lot and thoroughly enjoy talking to experts in their field, regardless of which field that is. The downside of this personality trait is that it breeds arrogance because you start thinking you know so much more than other people so you must be better than them, right? You’re not really, but it takes running your head into the wall a few times before that sinks in.
I’ve had my share of those moments (I wrote about that here) and it took me perhaps longer than it should have because I’m a stubborn bastard but I eventually got the point: I’ll never know as much as I’ll want to know and I’ll never be as good as some people are.
And that’s OK, it’s the way of things and the sooner you accept that, the better your life becomes.
What I also learned along the way was to eat humble pie. I remember being in my 20’s and thinking I knew the “Truth” ™ and by God, everybody else was wrong. Turned out I was right, wrong and half-off just like everybody else. Only when I stopped clinging to my preconceived notions and accumulated knowledge was I able to grow and get a better understanding of the topics I was studying. Frequently, it took somebody putting me in my place (read, kicking my ass) to prove me how wrong I was but it worked: I then changed my mind about what I thought I knew.
That’s where this Carl Sagan quote I just read again by accident comes in. Here it is:
In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
Forget about the “politics” and “religion” and replace these by “martial arts” and “self-defense”. The quote applies in spades then.
If there was ever a bunch of arrogant people walking the face of the earth, then it’s us martial artists and self-defense instructors. We all think we can kick ass and take names. We all think our art is better than every other art. We all are convinced that our way is the best way. We usually don’t say these things out loud (though some do…) but we sure as hell think them.
Or at least, we think them at an early stage in our development, like I did in my 20’s. With a bit of luck, we grow out of this phase but I’ve unfortunately met way too many men and women who are still stuck in that mindset when they reach old age.
I understand why this happens; the quote even states it clearly: it’s human nature. But understanding it doesn’t mean approving it. I think it’s wrong. I believe humility is something you should develop more as your knowledge and experience increases. If only to protect you from making a fool out of yourself when your arrogance prevents you from shutting up when you are being shown just how wrong you are. I’ve been there; it sucks to have your ego taken into a back alley and stomped into a coma. Takes a while to recover…
As a result of taking that kind of beatings, I’ve adopted a couple policies to try and prevent me from putting my foot in my mouth. Here they are:
- I’ll routinely qualify my words as only my opinion. I’m not writing gospel, just saying the way I think it is. By definition that means I admit I could be wrong.
- I work from the assumptions that more than one truth exist. It’s the old “hit this hard with a hammer” thing. Tell a blacksmith to do that when he’s working in his forge and you’ll get a different result than when you tell a jewelry maker the same thing when he’s hammering a piece of thin silver into shape. Both men use a hammer and both will be right in their interpretation of what “hard” means.
- I’m not a scientist. I didn’t complete a university degree in any science so it would be ludicrous for me to claim scientific accuracy. That means that when a scientist says I’m wrong, I probably am so I better shut up and try to understand his explanation of why I am off.
- If I don’t train in it, I don’t know it. It’s very easy to start thinking you can judge other systems if you are good at your own. That whole similarities vs. differences thing again… It’s also a stupid mistake for any expert to make yet it happens all the time. I try to avoid that and usually only talk about arts I don’t practice in general terms, qualifying these as but my untrained opinion. Doing anything else is enormously arrogant.
- What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. And vice versa, of course. Just because I can make a technique work doesn’t mean you can, and the opposite is also true. But if we judge each other on that ability, we’ll conclude that the other person sucks and his technique is useless. We’re all an island of one, doing our own thing. What applies to one may not apply to the other. As soon as you accept this, you start seeing value in a lot of things you previously discounted.
- If I don’t know it, I’ll tell you so. As an instructor, it’s hard for the ego to admit ignorance about things in our area of expertise. Somehow it feels like we should know everything but like Master Ken would say “That’s bullshit.” I routinely answer questions with “I’ll look it up’ or “I’ll ask my teacher.” This is not only a better answer, it’s also more truthful than making something up or only answering the part I know. And it keeps my ego in check.
I can honestly say that sticking to these guidelines has only given me benefits and no drawbacks that I know of. But the best part is that it has kept that thirst for knowledge alive as I get older. If I had stayed convinced of how right I was like when I was younger, I wouldn’t have studied and trained as much. And I wouldn’t have known as much as I do now, which is ironic and contradictory at the same time.
Nobody ever said it would be easy…