Satisfying ego or satisfying results?

I just finished reading this letter over at Tony Blauer’s website. To be fair, the letter reads like a mix of a testimonial and an ad/promotion for Blauer’s approach. That said, the article still brings up an important point.

The letter recounts Tom Arcuri’s journey in studying and ultimately teaching martial arts. As Mr. Arcuri developed his own style, he recognized why students come to him: not necessarily to learn some style of art, but to learn how to fight or defend themselves. Recognizing a need to satisfy this goal, he set out to meet it. Unfortunately and admittedly he chose the wrong measuring stick for progress: variety. In class situations he could see all sorts of variety and teach it, but once the students got into pressure situations, the variety went out the door. Why?

The answer came to Mr. Arcuri one summer. He came to learn that when one gets into pressure situations, one reverts to gross concepts and skills. Thus variety for the sake of variety goes out the door. Consequently, he changed how he evaluates from “variety” to “results”. I think that’s a good change. Does it necessarily matter how you defend yourself so long as you defend yourself successfully?

Mr. Arcuri writes:

As a group we tend to be control freaks, ego centric, and a bit insecure regarding our skills. This is ironic since we emphasize self-confidence and constant devotion to self-improvement to our students. We spend an inordinate amount of time arguing to be right even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Knowing forty or four hundred techniques gives us control and feeds our egos, but does it enhance our student’s survivability in a “real street fight”? Remember, it’s women and children that are more likely to have to defend themselves in our society.

I touched on this recently. Some arts make a big deal out of how much they have in their curriculum and how much they can teach you. The reality? Not so much. Kuk Sool may tout 3608 techniques, but I’ve long wondered just how they arrive at that total. If you look at what Kuk Sool terms “techniques” (the joint locks, throws, sweeps, etc… Ki Bohn Soo, Sohn Mohk Soo, etc.), then to earn 1st degree black belt you must learn 226 techniques; to earn 2nd degree, 143 techniques (369 total); to earn 3rd degree, 40 techniques (409 total); to earn 4th, 25 techniques (434 total); to earn 5th, 30 techniques (464 total). Now this isn’t to say the official Kuk Sool curriculum doesn’t have other things involved, but the point is that by the time you become a “Master rank” in Kuk Sool, you’ve been taught 464 techniques: only about 13% of the claimed knowledge in the system. Wow. So where are all those other techniques? Super-secret for only the blessed and privileged to know, I guess. Or maybe creative counting; I’ve wondered if by 3608 techniques they mean just the strictly defined techniques or if they also count kicks (front kick, 1; low front kick, 2; middle front kick, 3; high front kick, 4; etc.), punches, and every other little thing, since I know in other arts they will label that sort of stuff “techniques”. But however things are labeled and counted, the point still remains the same: aiming to collect a big number of stuff.

Aside: after a while you’ll find the techniques you’re learning are the same or almost the same. The body only bends so many ways, so if you claim thousands of ways to bend the body, eventually you’re going to repeat yourself in some fashion. Certainly I saw a lot of such repetition in the Kuk Sool curriculum. That’s not all bad because it helps to demonstrate different entries and approaches. But make sure you take those numbers for what they are.

So what’s the point of all of this? IMHO, ego satisfaction. You can strut around qualitatively stating “look at all that I know.” Then it’s easy to get into dick-measuring contests (e.g. Hwa Rang Do, a Kuk Sool contemporary, one-ups with their 4000+ techniques; see my previous article). But will a big ego keep you from getting your ass kicked? Maybe, but I doubt it.

As I’ve often said, what ultimately matters are the personal goals that you have for yourself. If your personal goal is to just acquire a large library of knowledge, then that’s fine. If your personal goal is to inflate your ego, that’s fine too. I know it sounds like I’m down on that, and I personally am because it’s not my goal and I don’t see much true point in that goal. But truly if that’s what you want and you feel it makes your life better, who am I to tell you no? I do hope you have perspective on that goal, but otherwise go for it. Me, my goal these days is combat effectiveness. I’d rather have one technique that I could execute solidly and well and that could truly save my life, than a thousand techniques that I half-assed know and don’t practically do much for me. This is why Filipino martial arts hold so much appeal for me.

As an engineer (with an engineer’s mindset) and given how much Taoism resonates with me, that’s likely why Bruce Lee’s philosophies resonate with me. He speaks of emptying your cup so it can be filled, of keeping what is useful and discarding the rest, of achieving a true simplicity in combat. Note that for these things to happen, first you must acquire. While learning nothing vs. learning something then discarding it, might appear in the end to achieve the same results, they really don’t. Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote:

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.

(It would seem that perfection is attained not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed.)

To strive for perfection, strive for simplicity. If it is not useful, discard it; but that does imply you must first have acquired it so you could determine if it was useful or not. How to determine if it’s useful? Does it help you satisfy your goals? If your goal is to satisfy your ego, then fine. If your goal is to get satisfying results, well… to me, satisfying results satisfies ego. :)

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