The cure for arrogance in the martial arts

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.

Loren W. Christensen  and Wim Demeere

My favorite picture of Loren and me, taking a break from shooting pictures for Timing in the Fighting Arts

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:

The cure for arrogance in the martial arts

The cure for arrogance in the martial arts

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.

 

Conclusion

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…

 

 

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Comments

  1. Kevin Keough says:

    Wim, this is a great post. Music to my ears. Maybe your best in a way

  2. Superb blog sir, I agree wholeheartedly, it is why I love bringing Rory, Marc, yourself etc over to do the seminars, I have no illusions that I am the best, I am good and I enjoy what I do in my martial arts, but I train with all sorts of awesome people at different levels.The Krav Island experience was fantastic, I was only observing and it tired me out, I wondered where you were going when you mentioned the scale of the universe theme. I do not see the irony as your job as a writer is to create the opportunity for people to reflect critically and the blog is the tool they can use, yours in smallness, Garry.

    • Thanks for the kind words Gary. A client of mine used to quote Oscar Wilde’s “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” to me all the time. I think this applies to martial artists especially as it’s very easy to get carried away by your on interpretation of how “good” you are. But in the big picture, the really big picture, it doesn’t mean much. So why make a fuss about it or take yourself seriously? :-)

  3. Great post Wim!

    Looking at ourselves is something we all need to do now and then. When it comes down to it, all we can do is learn what we can and pass on what we’ve learned. We will never know it all, or come even close, we just won’t live that long. :-)

    I always liked John Wayne’s reply in “The Alamo” when Col. Travis got upset when Wayne didn’t use his title of colonel. This was his reply:

    “Me, I’m a colonel too. Wouldn’t it sound kinda silly the two of us chattering colonel, colonel, colonel, like a couple of marsh shield birds. Just speak right up and call me Crockett, don’t bother to use my title, old drunken general Flatford gave it to me in the Choctaw Indian war. I’ll call you Travis.”

    John Wayne as Col. Davy Crockett – The Alamo (1960)

    Again, great post.

  4. Awesome post! Inspiring words on a Tuesday morning!

    Eric

  5. Adam F. Burroughs says:

    Wim,
    As I was reading, I kept thinking that this is Wim’s best blog ever. Then I got side-tracked thinking that perhaps I can overcome all of this if I combine my titles of Grand Master, Super Sifu and Ninja Sensei and name my new ancient style after the planet Saturn…
    I always look forward to your thoughts.
    A

  6. Yep – this is your best post to date – congrats and thank you!

  7. What great insights and observations, bro. This kind of growth in awareness and self-perception is often called wisdom. I’ve only encountered it a few times in my 61 years. And when I did, the recognition of what I was hearing or seeing caused a transformation in me that I can only describe as a truth that bypassed my intellect and my ego, and never failed to produce the physical sensation that I remembered as a child, of standing in a warm, soft Louisiana rain. I believe that this sensation was caused by the truth finding it’s home in my soul. I felt inspired, but it took some time to realize that this was where the real work began, without which, the only thing I had was a warm sensation akin to pissing my pants, and a quickly fading memory.

    You hit this one out of the park, mon homme. It will now be interchangeable with my all-time #1 favorite article Demeere, The Aging Martial Artist, which IIRC, also requires real work. *sigh* Damn, that couch looks good…{:-\

    That warm tingle is back. And yes, Wim, I checked to see if I had wet my aging self.

    WHOO-HOOO!!! Dry as a bone! LMAO….

    What a piece! Keep up your good work, my friend.

    Theo

  8. Such a great post and very well written. I too admit that I was arrogant in the early stages of training. However, I was emulating my instructors at the time and was part of a studio culture that was dog eat dog. Finding amazing instructors has made the real change in myself. It has been interesting to find that the most humble instructors also seem to have the most to offer. The most skilled instructors I know shrug off titles like Master and Grandmaster, though I use the titles anyway to show my respect and profound gratefulness for having them in my training life.

    One difficult thing for many new students is falling into the routine of over-respecting instructors who demand the titles like Master. As a white belt, you want to learn the proper etiquette and would like to believe that your instructor lives up to the title. It can be a harsh lesson to learn that the person you have called Master for years could actually be a scam or just in it to get your money…which was my experience.

    The great instructors who are so humble are the hardest to find. It wasn’t until I had years in the Martial Arts network in my community that I was connected with the “real” instructors. I often wonder where I would be in my skill level and understanding if I had started training with these skilled instructors from the beginning. But maybe my experience with the bad and arrogant helped provide a frame of reference for the great and humble.

    Again, thanks for the article! Well done.

  9. I used to think I had a problem with arrogance. Then I found out that I was simply right all the time.

    Kidding.

    Honestly, people that are too full of themselves really spoil what would be a very fun environment. I quit a dojo once because the instructor was so full of himself. I just couldn’t stand his pretension any longer – regrettable, too, since I very much enjoyed the style.

  10. I appreciate your point on humility. To keep from getting crushed by that immense comparison of self to nature(that includes all of existence by the way) I remember all of the physics lectures I have listened to and the brilliance of daring minds and what they dare to tell me. We are the universe experiencing itself….and that, is pretty damn cool.