I was talking to a friend at work the other day about smart people who don't think things through and dumb (or less intelligent) people who become very insightful by thinking correctly. This dovetailed into other thoughts I had about martial arts, and I figured what the heck, let me blog a little amateur philosophy at you.
Here's my thesis: if you want to make good rational choices you need to have two specific beliefs or characteristics.
By choices I mean choices of what to do or of what to believe. Both are choices, though they're made differently. A rational choice is a choice made for reasons. Think of it as a choice you could defend. Somebody who, for example, decides which way to go at an intersection by flipping a coin may in fact be making a correct choice - that is, they may end up going the right way. But it isn't rational in the sense that it's a choice supported by good reasoning.
If you want to make good rational choices you have to mix humility and arrogance in a very specific way. You have to be humble about what you know. If you think you know everything already you won't spend the time and energy needed to both fact-check the things you think you know and explore the things that are outside your knowledge base. This is a pretty classic idea in martial arts - the parable of the student and the full cup of water is exactly about this (very briefly, a student is compared to a full cup of water, it's so full there's no room for more knowledge, so the student can't be taught).
The second thing you need is to be arrogant about how smart you are. What do I mean by smart? A smart person is able to quickly reach good conclusions from basic data. It's like processing power in a computer. Intelligence is a very complicated thing, and I don't mean to oversimplify, but you have to believe that given the same basic set of facts you are as capable as anybody of finding the patterns in those facts, discriminating between the trends in the right way, and drawing truthful conclusions from those elements.
Why do you need to think you're smart? Because if you think a person or a group of people (doctors, strength coaches, martial arts instructors) are smarter than you and know more than you then you have no reason to think for yourself. It would make far more sense to just do what they tell you to do. Think about it - if your doctor knows more about bodies than you and is smarter, then he/she is going to reach far better conclusions than you will. So why would you think for yourself?
On the other hand, if you can recognize that your doctor or strength coach may know more than you but may not be as smart, then you have motivation to study the basic facts behind the matter at hand (Should I take statins? Should I back squat to improve my karate? Should I pre-load my hips before strikes while doing kata?) because you'll think that you might reach a better (more truthful) conclusion than your doctor/ coach/ instructor.
If you think you're smarter and more knowledgeable than everybody, however, you'll have no motivation to think or work through any of your questions, because you'll think you already have the answers. Which gives us the full cup of water analogy - if you already know everything then you can't learn anything new.
When I say you should be arrogant I don't mean that you should sneer in your doctor's face or act disrespectfully to your sensei. I only mean that you have to maintain an internal belief that you can, if pressed, come up with conclusions as good as or better than anyone's, including your instructors. You have to read an article by Mike Boyle and say to yourself, "clearly this guy knows more than me - his head is filled with observations from training hundreds of athletes for many years that I can't hope to match - but if I can learn from him what he's observed I have a chance to understand exercise as well as he does, if not better."
Be arrogant about how smart you are and humble about how much you already know.
And be smart enough not to wear your arrogance on the outside!