The skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.
Several lines of research are consistent with the notion that incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment. Work on the nature of expertise, for instance, has revealed that novices possess poorer metacognitive skills than do experts. In physics, novices are less accurate than experts in judging the difficulty of physics problems. In chess, novices are less calibrated than experts about how many times they need to see a given chessboard position before they are able to reproduce it correctly. In tennis, novices are less likely than experts to successfully gauge whether specific play attempts were successful.
We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
~ From “Unskilled and Unaware” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning
Learning a martial art is inevitably a process of trial and error. To a limited degree, we are all inventors of our own unique style of martial arts.
Some ambitious individuals choose to go further. Rather than building on the experiential framework provided by a living martial arts expert, these innovators attempt to create a superior new system from first principles.
Is it harmless creative expression, or dangerous folly?
In thousands of halls across our great nation, an archaic manuscript hangs on the wall. Written many decades ago, in a time and place quite foreign to our own, this inscrutable document anchors us to a primitive culture that we would do well to forget. I submit to you that it holds no value to us today; as rational men and women, we should put our sentiments aside and discard this anachronism immediately. Our traditions must not be allowed to stand in the way of progress.
What makes this document so odious? Simply put, it is subjective. Instead of identifying specific behaviors for its reader to follow, it describes general principles and leaves each reader to interpret them as they see fit. These statements are so vague and meaningless that they could conceivably be used to justify anything.
Who decides what this document really means?
Outside the school gym, two men sat idly on a bench, waiting for Tai Chi class to begin. “If anyone were to attack me,” the first student offered, “I would simply run away, living to fight another day.”
A faint smile crossed his companion’s face, as both continued to enjoy the summer sunset. Allowing a respectful pause, the second man finally replied: “And how fast can you run?”
While it is true that a fight requires two consenting parties, a brutal beating does not. There are times when strategic retreat is not an option. We all know that martial arts experience is valuable in such times, for everyone.
But did you know that martial arts training offers special benefits for the kind and gentle?
From American Shaolin, a autobiographical tale of Matthew Polly’s intensive training at the modern Shaolin Temple:
With most TV programming so dull, the boys at Shaolin were kungfu movie freaks, constantly visiting Shaolin’s multiplex to watch the latest blood-spattered Hong Kong releases on VHS. Wanting to undermine the assumption that laowai (non-Chinese outsiders) suck at martial arts, I brought VHS copies of Steven Seagal’s Above the Law, David Carradine’s Kung Fu, and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Lionheart back to Shaolin after winter vacation.
The monks were used to highly fictionalized portrayals of the Shaolin temple, so they weren’t bothered by the fantasy version of Shaolin in David Carrdine’s Kung Fu. They were, however, shocked by the casting of David Carradine.
“The actor is a laowai,” I said. “He’s pretending to be half-Chinese.”
“That explains why his kungfu is so terrible,” Little Tiger said, as he ducked to the back row to avoid another cuff from monk Deqing.
For the rest of the movie I ignored the slights about Carradine’s kungfu skills, which were admittedly poor. (To be fair, however, he did capture that California New Age, faux-Zen blankness perfectly.) I was waiting for that climactic moment that nearly every American male who was alive in the early 1970s remembers: the scene where Carradine lifts a burning chalice to pass the final Shaolin test, permanently branding a dragon one one forearm and a tiger on the other. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like this legend since my arrival, but I had to know.
“Is the story true?” I asked. “Did that used to be the final test for Shaolin monks?”
Land of the Free, Home of the Brave?
Trenchant and timely words from Eric Hoffer, one of Bruce Lee’s favorite philosophers:
There is always a danger that the suppression of a specific clearly defined evil will result in its replacement by an evil that is more widely diffused—one that infects the whole fabric of life. Thus, the suppression of religious fanaticism usually gives rise to a secular fanaticism that invades every department of life. The banning of conventional war-making may result in an endless undeclared war.
An Unauthorized Bibliography
There’s nothing new within this book; there are no secrets. “It’s nothing special,” Bruce used to say. And so it wasn’t.
With over 750,000 copies sold in nine languages, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is the bestselling martial arts book in modern history. Although Bruce Lee’s name and photo appear on the cover, dedicated fans know that he did not actually write Tao of Jeet Kune Do—at least not in its current form. (The book is a compilation of Bruce’s personal notes, organized and published posthumously by Dan Inosanto, Linda Lee and Gilbert Johnson.)
While credit for fighting methods expressed in Tao of JKD is rightfully given to boxer Edwin Haislet, fencers Hugo and James Castello, and others, we are left to infer that Jeet Kune Do’s philosophical underpinnings are Bruce’s unique contribution.
Quite the contrary, Jeet Kune Do is an orthodox expression of Taoist, Buddhist, and Western metaphysical principles. From the poem on the book’s opening page, to the passionate expressions of its final chapter, ideas in Tao of JKD can be traced directly to earlier written works. Here is a sampling of these sources.
Rewriting History, Wiki Style
Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of training for combat. While they maybe studied for various reasons, martial arts share a single objective: to defeat a person physically or to defend oneself from physical threat.
Wikipedia’s simplistic definition begs the question: martial arts are martial arts. The statement itself is neither true nor untrue—it is a game rule—but it does reflect an ignorance of, or perhaps a malevolence towards historical facts. Taken at face value, it encourages a dismissive, one-dimensional analysis of the arts’ tremendous potential.
To avoid limiting our achievement in the martial arts, we should begin with an honest and dispassionate accounting of the past. What was the real original purpose of various “martial arts”?
The first clues may be found in our forefathers’ own speech and writings.
Pick up an issue of Black Belt or Inside Kung Fu magazine. Watch a self-defense DVD. Browse a martial arts website. If you had to write captions under each picture, what would they say?
My hands are deadly weapons.
I am nobody’s victim.
Don’t mess with me, or you’ll regret it.
These poses remind your would-be attacker what they stand to lose. And sure, they are intimidating, to a degree.
The problem is, your attacker doesn’t harbor any intention of losing, and so the potential downside may just be disregarded.
My teachers have disagreed on many things, but in these two points they are all in accord:
- If you want to excel in martial arts, you must touch hands (spar) with as many people as possible; preferably, hundreds or thousands.
- For a great achievement, you must use the correct training methods in a disciplined fashion. Avoid deviant and inferior methods, and refuse to entertain the people who use them.
In theory, there is no contradiction between these two ideals. In practice, compromise is required. Nobody agrees on what the correct training methods are, and everyone measures their progress by a different standard—except for those who reject the concepts of “progress” and “standards” altogether.
Of all the frustrations that hinder interaction among martial artists from different schools, lineages and styles—money, reputation, physical safety—this is perhaps the most difficult to address: everybody else is practicing incorrectly!
A Socratic Dialogue
Master Po: Grasshopper, soon you must leave the mountain. We shall now begin preparations for the day that you accept disciples of your own.
Kwai Chang Caine: Be not concerned, master. I have committed each of your Kung Fu fighting techniques to memory.
Po: Grasshopper, these techniques are trifles. It is most important to transmit wude, the moral principles of Kung Fu.
Caine: Yes master, I have also memorized the 377 rules of virtuous conduct, and I will require my students to do the same. Rule number one: “Don’t show up drunk.” Rule number two…
Po: Stop right there. It is not the teacher’s job to recite these rules; it is the teacher’s job to embody them. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. Wude is not something you do, it is something you are.
Caine: Master, I do not understand. On the day I arrived in the temple, I took an oath to follow these rules. Are they not important?
Po: Grasshopper, that stuff is just for the newbies. It is time for you to receive the inner gate teaching on martial morality.