Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure. ~Kenneth E. Boulding
Want to become an admired and successful martial artist? It’s easy: just find a style and dojo where the rules favor your natural traits and talents, and insist that everyone follows the rules.
Do you have long legs and flexible hips? Try sport Taekwondo.
Overweight? Take up Tai Chi or knife fighting.
Prefer horizontal combat? Enroll in a BJJ class.
If this sounds like ridiculous advice, it is because you expect more than comfort and fraternity from your martial art. You want a practice that enables you to grow, and to realize your latent potential. Martial arts are supremely useful for this purpose because, at their most basic level, they have no rules; with no impermissible attacks, no fault is too small to remain uncorrected.
How to Become a Failure
Immanent success in martial arts is always a simple matter of lowering your standards. Failure, in contrast, becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. And as the opportunity for failure decreases, the rate of learning slows.
Progress in martial arts tends to follow a logarithmic curve. When a ten-year veteran of the arts possesses only three years worth of skill, it is probably because they long ago exhausted their opportunities to fail.
There are many ways for a student to increase their failure rate. The most obvious is to stop trying very hard. Unfortunately, artificial and self-inflicted failures are not very instructive. If you skip class too often, for example, then you will only “learn” that you skipped class too often (and you already knew that).
Working out with the best available partners is a given. It may not be enough. The greater Seattle area contains nearly one hundred different dojos, but residents of most cities and towns have fewer and less impressive options. This is why I recommend cheating.
Although martial arts themselves have no rules, the training methods invariably do. The rules shape what would otherwise be an overwhelming task into manageable pieces. Since the goal of study is learning, not winning, breaking these rules in order to score a point is counterproductive.
Breaking the rules to keep the game going is another matter. Losing is valuable experience, but giving up is not.
Consider the following scenario. Arnold and Sylvester are practicing a fixed-step Taiji pushing hands drill. Each is working towards the goal of uprooting their partner, thereby restricting his ability to attack. After a few moments of searching, Arnold breaks his opponent’s defense and prepares to push him away.
Both players know that Sylvester is on the verge of losing this round. Three possible responses:
- Arnold stops early, without uprooting Sylvester. He might think that victory is a foregone conclusion, or he might just consider this to be gracious behavior.
- Arnold pushes Sylvester to the limit of his stance, and continues to push farther. Sylvester pops up and out. He concedes the loss.
- Arnold pushes Sylvester to the limit of his stance, and continues to push. Sylvester takes a quick step to the side, attains the central position and pushes Arnold out.
The first response is the worst, hopefully for obvious reasons. Deception is fundamental in martial arts. Before declaring victory, it is prudent to verify that you have actually won, that you are neither mistaken nor being led into a trap.
The second response is typical. It also represents a missed opportunity.
In the third response, Sylvester is technically cheating, by taking a step during a fixed-step routine. However, this “cheating” is actually beneficial to both parties, as it grants both a second opportunity to fail, and to learn from that failure.
The specific scenario presented above is specific to Taiji, but the principle applies to all martial arts. Every dojo concerned with practical applications should allow this kind of cheating, if only as a last resort. This approach is excellent preparation for the real world, where cheating is often a first resort.
Entered in the Problogger Group Writing Project.