Friday, 25 November 2016

Why You Should Always Compare Yourself to Others

Shimabukuro Zenpō

It is a truism of the age that you should never compare yourself to others. That truism has been taken up eagerly by modern martial arts, often articulated as you should only measure yourself today against what you could do yesterday.

Both are wrong, at least when it comes to karate-dō.

At the immediate level of visible technique, a karateka should always be watching and assessing what others do. If the side kick of their sempai 先輩 (senior) is better than their own, they need to recognize that fact and try to understand which body mechanics make it better. If the outside block of their kōhai 後輩 (junior) is inferior to theirs, they need to comprehend what errors the kōhai is making, and whether their own technique may share similar flaws. Both are crucial teaching moments, because the essence of karate pedagogy is learning from others, regardless of their level.

It may be protested that these kinds of very specific comparison are not what the truism aims at. Instead, comparison becomes invidious when it is generalized and negatively affects how you feel about yourself. Wisdom means accepting yourself in the present. Leo Babauta writes, “We don’t need to be better than anyone else: we just need to love where we are and what we’re doing and who we are. That’s what matters.”

But karate is founded on the very opposite contention, because it is a combative discipline. In our dojo, we teach that the best fight is the one you avoid having, because very bad things can happen to you, regardless of your ability and experience. But if a fight is unavoidable, karate teaches you to win, for the simple reason that losing can have fatal consequences. The bottom line is that if you’re fighting for your life, you definitely need to be better than your opponent. If someone is trying to kill you, loving where and who you are is a rather unreliable strategy. A fight to the death is the supreme instance of comparing yourself to someone else.

Now, karate-dō aims at living, not killing. The great master of our style of karate, Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保, has never been in a street fight, and we, his students, strive to follow his example. Nonetheless, the lessons of karate-dō for living flow from the principles of combat. The Japanese say, “Satsujinken; katsujinken” 殺人剣活人剣: “the sword that takes life is the sword that gives life.” What, then, can be learned from karate’s foundation of ultimate comparison?

The best lesson is to reject not only the truism of “never compare yourself,” but also its ethos. What is promoted as the much better alternative to comparison is acceptance, the heart of loving yourself where you are—you  don’t need to change.

But karate-dō says you do need to change. We go to the dojo, some of us six days a week, expressly to change what we are. That’s why we work and sweat so hard. The great value of a physical discipline like karate is that it never stops reminding you that you need to get better. Karate is very complex, demanding, and difficult, and no matter how long you train, you never reach the level of being good enough. Yet, for those of us who love karate, this is inspiring, not discouraging, because it teaches us a simple truth: learning itself is transformation. If you already know enough, there is no point in going to university; if you already have grasped the essence of art and grace, there is no point in reading a great book; if you already embody the best of what it means to be human, there is no point in going to a dojo. You only study, read, or train because you realize that self-improvement is a transformation. It not a possession you can own; it is something you become. Learning changes who you are, and great learning changes you in profound ways.

The other failure of the ethos of “don’t compare yourself with others” lies in presuming the virtue of loving yourself or making you feel good about yourself. Despite the penchant of Western martial arts clubs for marketing themselves by claiming they will improve your self-image, real karate-dō is completely unconcerned with such goals. The first example of watching someone’s side kick is exemplary: the point isn’t to build self-esteem; the point is to be utterly and ruthlessly realistic about what, where, and who you are. In combat, truth trumps narcissism. The point is to recognize both your strengths and weaknesses and keep building from there. In this view, “don’t compare yourself with others” is not self-development, but self-destructive: if you don’t have the courage and honesty to face your inadequacies, then you’re not going to have the courage to face someone in combat. To go back to the side kick: the better test of yourself is how you react if your junior’s kick is better than yours. The karate way is not to avoid comparisons, but to cultivate the character to face them. We work on the self instead of insulating it. That’s what we do when we compare ourselves to superb teachers like Shimabukuro Hanshi or my own sensei, Dan Smith. They are better than we are, in multiple and very tangible ways, so we train hard to try to become just a little more like them. We think that the best thing for ourselves is to compare ourselves with the best, in the certain knowledge we will fall short. It’s that comparison that keeps us trying.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attracted a great deal of attention with his 10,000 Hour Rule, which asserted, based on research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. Gladwell cited the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples. The Rule subsequently drew substantial criticism, including some from Ericsson himself, and Gladwell later clarified that mastery depended on natural ability as well as practice. But he maintained his insistence that a great deal of sustained practice was still essential for mastery.

The number 10,000 has cross-cultural mystique. In Asia, it is special because it means a myriad. In Japanese, 10,000 is written and pronounced “ban.” Banzai! 万歳 is a shortened form of Tennōheika Banzai! 天皇陛下万歳, “May the Emperor live for 10,000 years!”, and expresses great celebration or applause. I was the first grandchild on my father’s side (and the first son of the first son of the first son, which matters a great deal in Japanese families), and when I was born, my grandfather, Aoki Sadayoshi, cried out, Banzai!

A Bruce Lee quote regularly recycled on the internet is, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It’s a little ironic in this context, since Gladwell specifically exempted sports from the Rule, but Lee’s sentiment is a received truth in the martial arts, in which the necessity of years of deliberate practice has been empirically verified countless times across systems, cultures, and centuries.

Yet the fuss about the 10,000 standard to become a master, whether positive or negative, misses central tenets about karate exactly because it’s about mastery. The crucial counterpoint is provided by the great Shōtōkan sensei, Ohshima Tsutomu, who wrote that a karateka must practice a kata 10,000 times or more before they begin to understand its meaning. Beginning to understand something is almost the opposite of mastering it; in fact, beginning to understand something means understanding you are far from mastering it. Ohshima drives his point home by continuing with “You must practice your favorite technique 100,000 times before you can use it in any situation,” which makes Lee seem like a piker. If Gladwell is correct that sports can be mastered in much less than 10,000 hours of practice, then it’s one more hint that karate is not a sport. Higaonna Morio, the famed Gōjū sensei, has practiced karate for more than 60 years, yet when talking about his own practice, he smiled and shook his head gently and said, “Need more training.”

Of course, the crucial and typically Japanese paradox is that such an admission, by a karateka of such extraordinary ability that he has been named an Intangible Cultural Asset of Okinawa, is the mark of a real master. This kind of mastery defined by needing more practice is by no means limited to karate. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was once asked, “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” He answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

Perhaps it’s in large part because I am already an old man of 60 myself, but I firmly believe that is the reason to train. If I practice a kata every day and never miss a day, it will take over 27 years to make 10,000 repetitions, over 27 years to begin to understand it. I may well not even live that long. I can’t be concerned with mastery, which will always remain elusive; I can only keep trying to make progress.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Extraordinary and the Ordinary

Iha Koshin pointing out the names of his father and brother
at the Cornerstone to Peace memorial

Deadly Arts: Karate (2003) is an episode in a documentary series by Canadian filmmaker, Josée Normandeau. It was shot on Okinawa. Several karate sensei are featured, including the late Iha Koshin 伊波庫進 (1922-2012), 10 dan Hanshi Gōjū ryū. At one point, Normandeau takes Iha Hanshi to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Park. There, for only the second time, he views the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument to those who died in the massive Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Echoing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the names of the dead are inscribed across its many stone walls. There is, however, a crucial difference: if you visit there, you will see the names of not only the soldiers of one nation, but those of everyone who died in that terrible battle, whether Japanese, American, or Okinawan, whether military or civilian. There are over 240,000 names, and more are added each year with the discovery of casualties not known before. More than a third of the population of the island was killed.

Among those memorialized are Iha Hanshi’s father and brother. When Normandeau asked him how he felt when he saw their names, he replied, “My sorrow is no more important than anyone else’s whose loved ones’ names are written here.”

His words have stayed with me, and they resonate even more now that he is gone. In their simple modesty, they articulate the essence of karatedō and the gulf between it and Western culture. The death of someone you love is such a singular and personal event, like nothing else in life. Yet even in the return and consideration of that extremity, what Iha Hanshi offered was not his own private grief, no matter how profound that was, but rather how that grief was shared. He knew he held it in common with all the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. There is the paradoxical crux of the matter: what is experienced or possessed by everyone is an archetype of the ordinary. After all, the definition of the mundane is that which is common. Yet Iha Hanshi makes us recognize that, sometimes at least, it is the very mundanity of something—the fact that it is shared throughout a collective or a community—which makes it special. The ordinary can be extraordinary because it is ordinary.

The pertinence to karatedō is manifold, starting with a deep ethical implication. I once saw a newscast about a deadly attack in the Middle East. The mother of one of those killed wept on the screen and, in her grief, cried out that those of the other side were animals who did not feel the pain that she and those on her side did. I felt for that bereft mother. As a father, I can imagine nothing worse than losing a child. But the contrast with Iha Hanshi was stark. She thought her grief elevated her above her enemies, because she was sure that they did not share the love and hurt that tore at her soul. She did not even think they were human.

But of course they were human, and of course they loved and hurt. Those on every side of every awful conflict have. That is why the Cornerstone of Peace lists the names of all the dead, whatever their provenance. The loss and grief of everyone matters. We are obligated to honour that commonality, and never hold our love and pain as higher or better than anyone else’s. The ordinariness of loving and losing the ones we love is a simple and universal burden of being human, of having a heart. And that is truly extraordinary.

One of the things that makes karatedō special is that, as a combative art, it takes lessons of death as lessons for life. Then what import can Iha Hanshi’s words have for our daily lives? In the manner of Asian teaching fables, the answer is given in the question itself, for it teaches us the specialness of our daily lives.

When we practice karate, it’s important that we envision fighting a life-and-death battle, so that there is urgency, seriousness, and realism in our technique. Training is always preparation for the potential time when we have to defend ourselves on the street. Yet while that is true, it is also misleading, or at least insufficient. It’s true that karate that doesn’t work in fighting is useless, and your karate won’t work unless you train consistently, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Karate is the opposite of diets that promise results in a couple of weeks without real sacrifice. It takes a great deal of training and effort to be able to fight well. Yet this focus on self-defense frames endless practice as the mundane preparation for the real thing, for what is important or special. From that perspective, a karateka in the dojo is like a football player on the practice field or an actor in rehearsal. The thing that really counts is the fight, the game, or the performance. This is a good characterisation of sport karate, where you practice to succeed at what matters: winning a match or a tournament. Practice is then the means to an end, the ordinary thing that is the prerequisite for the extraordinary.

However, in Japanese fashion, this straightforward notion of practice is predicated on its opposite. It’s well-established that karate, like all effective combative methods, is only functional if it is practiced so often and intensely that its techniques become natural, if they become thoroughly part of who you are, so your body can act and react much faster and more efficiently than if you had to think about what to do. In other words, practice is a transformation of the self. Training makes you a better fighter by making you faster, stronger, calmer, tougher, more supple, more perceptive, more disciplined, more relaxed, more unflappable and less fearful or full of doubt.

Still, serious karateka are obliged to take one step further: they must recognize that this many-sided transformation is not the means to the end of becoming a good fighter, but rather the end itself. The significance of combat to karate is less the possibility of a street fight than it is the certainty that crucial principles of warrior traditions structure the ethos of practice. So the key is an inversion of the seemingly obvious: you don’t train to fight—although training does develop the capacity to fight—fighting teaches you how to train, and, thereby, how to make yourself a better human being.

To return to the original point, how does this apply to the ordinary and the extraordinary? The answer stems from a Japanese proverb, narai sei to naru習い性となる: “practice becomes one’s nature.” Or, “you become what you do.” More specifically, you become what you do over and over; you become what you do every day. It’s that simple and that difficult (especially in these times and this culture). If you are going to succeed in karate, practice has to be the most ordinary thing in the world. It has to become like eating or sleeping or breathing, something that is a necessary, repetitive part of existence. You need to work the extraordinary circumstances of life-and-death battle as ordinary daily practice. Karate becomes extraordinary precisely when it becomes ordinary, because then karate becomes what you are.