The Polymath Pursuit

"A man can do all things if he but wills them."

What Martial Arts Taught Me About Learning: “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

It’s a common scenario that martial arts saves someone, but this isn’t about that.

It isn’t even about having an undying passion for martial arts—I haven’t trained in more than a year. It’s about the perspective I gained looking through martial arts.

My early encounters with martial arts birthed a curiosity and admiration. It was a primitive beginning that found me fascinated by only the simplest and shallowest of technique; I saw speed, strength, power, intelligence, and no more. When a fighter succeeded, it was because of the talent they had in any combination of the four attributes. A fighter’s success was a fixed entity because the four attributes that built success were, in my mind, born, not made.

My perspective of each fighter’s success or lack thereof was but a limited black and white. Though I was able to admire the machinery, the attributes each fighter had, I never thought to study the engine that turned the wheels.

What, then, was the turning point that changed my perspective? What was the illuminating moment that turned my black and white view to full-color HD? In two words: Jack Slack.

[Note: Just so there is no incorrect attribution, though I may say “martial arts” was what gave me perspective, the route went more like this:  martial arts was the vehicle, Slack was the driver, and I was the passenger being taken along for the ride.]

Bolded read time (tldr): 30 seconds

Total read time: 10 minutes

Two Approaches To Learning

“I have used chess to illustrate this entity/incremental dynamic, but the issue is fundamental to the pursuit of excellence in all fields. If a young basketball player is taught that winning is the only thing that winners do, then he will crumble when he misses his first big shot. If a gymnast or ballet dancer is taught that her self-worth is entirely wrapped up in a perfectly skinny body that is always ready for performance, then how can she handle injuries or life after an inevitably short career? If a businessperson cultivates a perfectionist self-image, then how can she learn from her mistakes?”   Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning

What does it take to become Michael Jordan, to learn a language in just seven days, to become a human calculator? If “talent” is the first answer that comes to mind (“time I don’t have” was the second), as it did for me when I thought about great fighters, then your abilities will be limited, as your learning will be stunted. Take this experiment for example:

A group of children are split into two groups: one praised for intelligence and the other praised for effort. They are both given four minutes to work on a problem set. Afterwards, they are given feedback and praise from the experimenter. Next came a second problem set which the experimenter informed the children they did poorly on. Following this, the children rated their willingness to continue, their enjoyment, performance, and failure attributions.

The effort group attributed their failures more to low effort than the group praised for ability. However, the intelligence group attributed their failure to lacking abilities. The group praised for effort showed a willingness to persist after the setbacks; however, the group praised for intelligence were less inclined.

Those praised for ability find themselves grounded with learned helplessness, and due to the pressure of a reputation to maintain, they hide in the shadows. This is where the stunted growth occurs. Compare this position with the hermit crab, the living representation of the ideal learning approach. As the crab grows, it needs a larger shell. When the time comes, the crab must crawl out of its shell, exposing its flesh to the air, light, and various conditions of its habitat. Should the crab not manage a speedy dealing of real estate, it leaves itself exposed to all predators. This state of vulnerability is where, for us humans, the growth occurs. However, think in terms of innate ability and you’ll be as an anorexic hermit crab, forgoing food and nutrition in order to stay in its current shell. A focus on innate ability quickly turns your vision from a process-oriented approach to a results-oriented approach, often leading to abandonment upon failure or hints of failure, like when you feel someone is doing better or when you’re plateauing.

A purely results driven ideology is a stale perspective of the world. Instead, look to embrace an indifference to perfection and adopt ambivalence. A willingness to make mistakes and eyes that prize the journey as its own reward are preferable approaches to just having eyes on the prize.

The lesson is to value process over results. This will be a difficult lesson to let sink in; it’s not easy to cast judgment away from yourself, to move your head off the chopping block. However, this idea of process over results should be no stranger; you are no doubt familiar with sayings that stress the journey over its destination. The message between process and result, journey and destination, are the same. If you wish, as I do, to keep your sanity as you approach the learning process, an incremental approach to the learning process must be adopted.

Lay down the drawbridge to achievement by eliminating the belief that “effort is for those who don’t have the ability…If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.” (Dweck 37) Because, just as the above experiment has proven, your achievements will walk in pace with your approach. 

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Jack Slack’s analyses of martial arts, techniques, tactics, and strategy can be described as an incremental approach to learning, or a growth mindset; the perfect contrast to my former entity approach, also known as a fixed mindset. 

The growth mindset opens the door that leads to a blueprint for learning. It leads us to question how a man like Daniel Tammet, a.k.a. Brain Man, can learn a language like Icelandic in seven days well enough to be interviewed on TV, or how a man like Scott Flansburg, armed with but a more efficient and effective method, can calculate as fast as a calculator—Flansburg does not memorize equations nor did he memorize an abacus.

To use an example from the combat sports world: how could a physically inferior fighter dominate his opposition? How could a 176lb man (Royce Gracie) hope to beat a foe that outweighed him by almost 300lbs (Akebono Taro)? All odds, by nature, are stacked in favor of the physically imposing foe, or so I thought.

Gracie defeated his opponent in 2 minutes and 13 seconds. He used Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (made famous by him during UFC 1 in 1993), which has proven that it is the most efficient and effective style when it comes to 1 on 1 fights. It is guided by principles and techniques that maximize input to output ratios, getting the most done with the least work.

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A basic armbar. Right’s entire body against Left’s one arm. Her minimal input is enough to get fight ending output (a light push of the hips would break Left’s arm).

These same principles of maximizing input to output ratios aren’t exclusive to grappling arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, or Wrestling. They’re present in all martial arts and can be applied to all scenarios. Picture this analogy that Slack himself likes to use: You’re on an island in a Lord of the Flies scenario with a man that’s twice your size. This larger man is consuming all the food and refuses to share. Assuming diplomacy nor theft is an option, how do you approach the larger man? Marching towards and challenging him to a fight to the death isn’t going to work; he’s twice your size, so he’ll thrash you. What do you do? You grab the biggest swingable rock, approach him from behind, and bash him over the head.

By attacking from behind, you’re eliminating obstacles, thus dealing the most damage while taking none. The small man’s use of tactics and strategy allows him to dismantle much larger, stronger, and powerful men. Bernard Hopkins is an example of a fighter who used savvy techniques, tactics, and strategy to become the oldest fighter to ever win a boxing world championship—he was 49.

This is the shift in perspective. Slack’s view of striking took away my hollow notions that were speed, power, strength, and intelligence. That’s not to say these attributes don’t exist—they do—but they are not fixed entities; they are products of an incremental and strategic approach to the learning process. Success has less to do with natural talents and more to do with precisely applied efforts or methods. There is less innate ability in the world than you think, most often we deal with learned abilities. 

This is the first step in realizing that there is a method to learning, a strategy to achieve superhuman results without first being superhuman. The first step is to bring down that drawbridge, but if you never do it, you’ll never accept the methods.

So, though I’ve given a taste, let’s dive deeper into the world of methods. We begin with deconstruction.

Deconstructing Greatness: Finding The Recipe

What may be so spectacular about greatness is how unspectacular it may initially seem when it is deconstructed. That is not to say that understanding methods takes away beauty in the same way that knowing the trick may ruin magic. What an understanding adds is an extra layer of beauty to its subject, just as learning to taste enhances your enjoyment and experience of food.

To begin deconstruction, let’s return to where we started: My change in mindset. This change from fixed mindset to growth mindset, passive observer to active participant, can be drawn parallel with my recent change in perspective on memory—that memory is not a thing. You cannot talk about having bad memory as you may talk about having bad teeth because “memory is merely an abstraction that refers to a process rather than a structure.” (Higbee 2)

The process is more recipe than it is innate skill because, in the same way that you don’t need to be a great chef to make great food, you don’t need to be superhuman to perform superhuman acts. You just need the right steps, and I’ll illustrate these steps through my study of memory.

Memory has a deep and profound affect on learning. Take a look at any prodigy (people who’ve reached peaks of any field in record time)—be it chess, music, or mathematics—or omnibus prodigy (a prodigy that excels in multiple fields), they all have working memories that rank in the 99th percentile, often in the 99.9th. You’ve no doubt heard tales of Mozart’s amazing memory. To state a modern example, Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated chess player in history, could name almost all the countries in the world along with their capitals and populations when he was only 5. So, can a clear line between prodigiousness and memory be drawn? Not quite. This is an observational study that can only determine correlation (A happens while B happens). Could memory be the trait that drives their success? Possibly. Should we look into this? Definitely.

If there is a formula for learning, can it be found within prodigies? One may think not, because how could a normal person’s memory possibly match that of a prodigy in the 99.9th percentile? Is it possible to create prodigious yield out of average or even below-average hardware?

Let’s take a look at a man with photographic memory, a Russian newspaper reporter named Shereshevsky, or “S.” He had the ability to memorize as many as 70 words or numbers presented once. He was even able to repeat them backwards (to see how hard this is, try to recite the alphabet backwards). To extend this even further beyond disbelief, he could even remember the same 70 or so words 15 to 16 years later. However, S did not possess a “photographic memory.” His mind did not take instant snapshots to be filed away and retrieved later. He used mnemonics to convert words and numbers into images just as Ancient Roman and Greek orators used the method of loci (you know this as “mind palace” if you watch Sherlock) to memorize speeches. This memory technique is one commonly used today by “masters of memory” to accomplish extraordinary feats, such as memorizing the order of a deck in 45 seconds or memorizing an 1,000 digit number in an hour. However, these masters of memory will often claim to have average or even below-average memory, so how do they do what they do? The method.

With a recipe like the method of loci, even ordinary people are able to perform feats of extraordinary mental agility that match prodigies. With a style built on efficiency, like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, even small men are able to defeat opponents twice their size. With tactics and strategy like Bernard Hopkins, even a man approaching 50 is able to become a boxing world champion. Learning is not an issue of hardware as most may believe it is, but an issue of software. Astonishing intellectual achievement can be accomplished even with average neurology, as great physical achievement can be accomplished even with average physiology. You just need the right recipe.

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Kyle Maynard is a quadruple amputee, high school wrestler, and holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He won 22 of 27 wrestling matches in his senior year, ranking 4th in the state of Georgia in the 103-point weight class.

“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

He wanted to use the steeple of Philadelphia’s Christ Church as a high vantage point. Many believed lightning was a supernatural phenomenon or God’s expression, thus making it a fitting place for his most famous experiment of all time. The similarities between lightning and electrical sparks were what caught this eye, to which he journaled the 12 of them, “1. Giving light. 2. Color of the light. 3. Crooked directions. 4. Switch motion 5. Being conducted by metals. 6. Crack or noise in exploding…9. Destroying animals…12. Sulpherous smell.” The most important point being the “connection between this surmise about lightning and his earlier experiments on the power of pointed metal objects to draw off electrical charges.” (Isaacson, 137) It is with this knowledge that Benjamin Franklin chose “to play Prometheus.” (Isaacson 139)rsz_1764px-benjamin_west_english_born_america_-_benjamin_franklin_drawing_electricity_from_the_sky_-_google_art_project.jpg

Impatient with the unfinished steeple, he chose to use the kite instead. A sharp wire stuck out from the top while a key was placed near the end of the wet string, thus allowing sparks to be drawn when a wire was brought close.

The much-needed clouds came and went, causing no effect but Franklin’s despair. However, it was precisely at this moment of despair when he saw the strings stiffen. He raised his knuckle to the key and drew sparks.

He then collected the charge in a Leyden jar, finding in them the same qualities as electricity from his prior experiments. “Thereby the sameness of electrical matter with that of lightning,” he wrote, was “completely demonstrated.” Franklin proved “that lightning, once a deadly mystery, was a form of electricity that could be tamed…In solving one of the universe’s greatest mysteries, he had conquered one of nature’s most terrifying dangers.” (Isaacson 144-145)

This essay is about understanding. More specifically, it is about the myth busting nature and beauty of understanding. Understanding is not to be looked at as an engineer would examine a machine, nor a film critic his favorite film, but to swing both ways 50/50. It is the light that shines in the darkness, the illumination that removes superstition. Understanding gives more to the individual; it adds beauty when you take away superstition, as astronomy does in place of astrology, chemistry in place of alchemy. Unlike knowing a magician’s trick, understanding injects a dash of color that would otherwise be lost. It opens up your world to be seen and comprehended in more beautiful ways. So, may these colors paint themselves into your life…and open up your world.

References: 

Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. New York: Free Press, 2007. Print.

Ruthsatz, J., & Urbach, J.B., Child Prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail…, Intelligence (2012)

Mueller C.M. & Dweck C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (1) 33-52 DOI:

Slack, Jack. “Jack Slack: Angles and Feints With Lyoto Machida | FIGHTLAND.” Fightland. Grolsch Film Works, Noisey, Motherboard, The Creators Project, Advice, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Higbee, Kenneth L. Your Memory: How It Works And How To Improve It. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 1996. Print.

Sykes, Christopher, dir. “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” Horizon. BBC. London, 23 Nov. 1981. Television.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twleve, 2007. Print

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