Monday, July 18, 2011

The Dark Side of Accomplishment

Pop quiz:  What do Jon "Bones" Jones, Bill Clinton, and I have in common?

Answer:  A tendency to become assholes in the moment of our greatest success.

I honestly can't decide if this is a universal human trait or not - it certainly manifests to varying degrees in different individuals - but I've seen it in plenty of people.  I don't know where I read this analysis of Clinton (I certainly didn't make it up) but the gist of the theory is that every time he'd experience great success in some area of his life he'd get arrogant and cocky and do something stupid to screw it up.  I've done this myself, plenty of  times, though with much smaller consequences - I get that feeling of success and invulnerability, push the envelope a little bit, then some more, until everything pops and I wind up acting like an asshole.  If you know me, you might think that this is my natural state of being all the time, but the painful fact is that when I get high on myself my behavior actually gets much, much worse.

In martial artists this leads to some weird behavior.  You might think that the arrogant among us would ease off on training - but the opposite usually occurs.  After all, the arrogant karateka know how they got so good - by training - and they don't want to let that slide.  So they keep training very hard, but, they stop really learning.  They''ll correct mistakes pointed out by their seniors, but they won't really try to understand the mistakes or develop new insight into their technique.  The feeling of accomplishment fills their heads like wax.

Plus, they become assholes.  In a way that is usually tempered by dojo etiquette, which makes it subtler, but still present.  Even if it's just the way they look at the lesser mortals around them - they're still being assholes.

There are several cures.  One is to be around much better karateka than yourself - this helps cure our overconfidence.  If that's tough to find, try YouTube.  If you're really one of the best in the world, and can't find anybody more skilled than you to temper your arrogance...  then kudos to you, sir, and may I ask why you're reading my blog?  In all seriousness, however, I don't think anyone is so skilled in all areas of martial arts that they can't find someone to look up to in some area or ability to make them feel humbled.

I had a moment like this last weekend - for about 90 seconds I was pretty happy with my skill as a karateka (this was after promotion).  Luckily, I was alone in my room, so I didn't get a chance to do anything super obnoxious before snapping out of it (if I was obnoxious to you last weekend, I apologize, but that was just my normal personality, not the super obnoxious me I can become when I'm feeling cocky).

Moments to be careful of include (but are not limited to): achieving new ranks, mastering new kata/ techniques/ skills, winning competitions, and successful sparring sessions.

The annoying thing is that walking around all the time feeling down on yourself because of how much you suck at martial arts, comparing yourself to the great masters and always feeling like a loser, is equally counterproductive.  Being too humble can be demotivating, and giving your own opinions too little weight can make it very hard to advance in your understanding of martial arts.  The trick seems to be finding a happy middle ground, and if I knew exactly how to manage that I'd absolutely tell you.

Bottom line:  try not to be an asshole.  When you're feeling best, and most accomplished, is exactly when you are most likely being the biggest jerk.  If you're reading this and think I meant you, I didn't - I really wrote this about me - but if you think I meant you then maybe you have some self examination to do.


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