Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pride? Ego? What's my problem?

The other day I saw a family friend that I only get to see once or twice a year. Each time he sees me, he asks about my training.  He in genuinely interested in the martial arts and my ongoing journey and progress.  He doesn't train in the martial arts but he asks thoughtful questions and has an open mind.

Around three years before I began this blog, I had decided to try to throw away ego, pride and pre-conceived ideas on the martial arts.  I essentially started over.  My first real Sensei, the man who inspired me and put me on my path in the martial arts, agreed to take me on as a student.  He had retired from the business side of the martial arts but was willing to train me.  I put aside my belts from other martial arts.  I've held, and I guess I still hold, several belts of various colors in various arts.  I've yet to earn a black belt in any art, in case you're curious, but I've gotten pretty close in a few.

It was liberating to don a white belt again.  Just the look of it reminded me of what I was doing, and why I was starting over.  For the first two years, I was lucky enough to be a private student of my Sensei.  The training was intense and challenging.  I was a lucky lad, indeed.  For two years, I wore a white belt and never gave it another thought.  We never talked about grading, and quite frankly, I don't think it really crossed my mind.  It wasn't until my Sensei decided to take on a couple of select students that belt color and gradings were introduced.

I don't put a lot of weight on belt color.  Some martial arts clubs will promote students to black belt in a year, some take ten.  There's lots of good things about the colored belt system, but they don't tell the entire story.  I've posted on the topic several times previously, you can read the posts below:

Coloured Belt System - The Good
Coloured Belt System - The Bad
The 'No-belt' test
Bad Business, Fake Black Belts and the Internet

The point?

As a lead in to the conversation, the family friend said "You're a black belt, right?"  When I said no, he said I must at least be brown then.  He had, as it turned out, been told by a well meaning family member that I was a black belt, that family member assuming that I must have been as I've been training for as long as they remembered, at least a couple decades.  Neither knew, or could know, about my decision to start over or the specifics of my history in different arts.  They just knew I train.

What hit me about this conversation was that I found myself starting to explain the reasons that I wasn't a black belt, almost feeling a need to justify why I wasn't.  I realized that the issue of justifying why I was, or wasn't something, was all in my head.  It was my issue.  My belt color made no difference to the family friend.  It was a passing assumption that didn't require any explanation by me whatsoever.  It was also not any part of the subsequent martial arts conversation.

It was in that moment that I realized that I'm not completely free from all things ego and pride related.  It caught me a bit off guard.  My Sensei is the most talented martial artist that I've ever met.  I've 'road tested' my Jiu Jitsu with success on several occasions.  I know what I know and I'm confident that the instruction I receive is truly world class.  So why did I feel a need to provide an answer to a question that wasn't even really asked?

Clearly I've still got a ways to go letting go of ego and pride on my journey. Has anyone else suffered from an ego 'glitch' like I did?

Thanks for reading.  Back to some introspection for me...


  1. Absolutely.

    I started in martial arts in 1986 at the age of 11. I did not receive my first black belt until 2002. I trained a lot a times, other times life got in the way, but the whole time i knew budo was my path. Not having a black belt messed with me after so many years. I have lots of stories about this subject.

    In hind sight the painfully slow path is the way to go. It is not for everyone, but it is the way for you and me.

    My initial investment in the long run paid off I guess. Now the rankings in numerous arts started flooding in. Eventually I became uncaring about grade except for my students sake. I have made the ego journey of rank.

    No worries if you don't have a black belt yet. The fact you train, think about these issues and how it affects your path makes you an equal to any sensei. More ranked people see that and respect it.

  2. You make an interesting observation about rank. I think this might be the major difference between practical and aesthetic. In practical terms, everyone knows who is better, who has been training longer, who has been training intensively, etc.

    I recall a story of a Sensei in Iaido (of a Koryu). He was the Sensei of all of the most senior Iaidoka of the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei, and they all knew he was amazing and better than them. But he had no official rank in the organization. Where would he stand in this case? And does he care? Should anyone else?

    It's a bit of a koan. The rank matters as much as you let it. :)

  3. I Am still a First degree black belt in my favorite system Chang Woo Hapkido. I have trained with master Choi for over a decade and have studied many other systems for 6 months to a year. I can go into most schools and hold my own and/or defeat the top student in those schools but yet they all out rank me. In some cases (very true for most "cagefighting" schools) I am as good or better than their instructor. It tickles me to see these guys who are 25 and have a 3rd or 4th Dan and i am 36 have been steady in the martial arts since i have been 16 and have one black belt.

    If you need a black belt send me 5 bucks and your address and ill send ya one!

  4. Sensei Strange,

    Thank you for that. Knowing that you had similar mental struggles helps. I'll always be on the path of Budo, but I guess I just need to complete my own "ego journey of rank".


    A bit of a koan. Very true. And you're right, after a certain point, our eyes are no longer clouded by belt colour. Skill is skill, regardless of what holds your pants up. I liked your ideas of practical versus aesthetic. Thanks.


    It's also always amazed me when someone in their 20's has multiple black belts in multiple systems. The business side of martial arts can make it a bit of a joke, sadly. 5 bucks for a black belt? Good point. Thanks for the chuckle.

  5. I don't have a black belt in any style but I have also only been training in martial arts for 5 years. I have had people ask me if I'm a black belt after 5 years of training because a great many of them simply expect that to be the case. Other people perceive black belts as the most skilled martial artists and they have been conditioned to believe that it takes 2 years to accomplish because that's how long it took their 12 year old in their Karate Kids class. That shouldn't really matter to us but, both fortunately and unfortunately, people are social creatures. Because they expect a certain thing of us we feel we should either meet that expectation or explain why we don't meet it. I try to stick with telling people that I've been training for five years and, right now, don't have an official rank in my current art :P

  6. Noah,

    I think you've hit on something here talking about how others expect something of us so we feel a need to either meet that expectation or explain why we don't. I like your idea about telling people that you don't have an official rank in your art. I may try that out. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. I just remembered you are a police officer.

    If you have arrested anyone was did not want to be, you are a black belt. Your black belt holds more gear than mine.

  8. Sensei Strange,

    It was from those very experiences that I really began to dissect and examine my training. Many lessons are learned when someone is truly resisting. Come to think of it, my work belt is black...

    Thanks again.

  9. Thanks to everyone for some great comments.

  10. I think the issue of the black belt is a bit of a furphy. However, the wonderful thing is that it led you to examine yourself. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. You're examining your life, so it must be worth living. Congrats.
    Ego and pride. Expectations. Judgements. All can prove problemetic and the source of pain and suffering. Expecations is one I've focussed on. Expectations of yourself, and others expectations of yourself that you feel (why?) that you have to live up to. You'll find that so many relationship problems revolve around expectations.
    Being proud of what you've accomplished can't be too much of a problem. Being proud - or what's called being proud, not that is another issue.
    Good for you for examining.

  11. For all you non Aussies out there:

    Furphy (from oxford

    "noun (plural furphies)
    Australian informal
    a rumour or story, especially one that is untrue or absurd.

    First World War: from the name painted on water and sanitary carts manufactured by the Furphy family of Shepparton, Victoria"


    I think you're right about how expectations get us into trouble. Usually the ones that affect me most are the self imposed ones, or the ones I anticipate others will have of me. Usually both are inaccurate.


  12. Learn Hiragana says: Very interesting post Journeyman. I totally understand the ego-glitch thing (it also happened to me, but in the field of language learning).

    Well, in my opinion the color of your belt means nothing. You can just buy one or wear any other color you like, who cares. What's really important is that once a situation arises where you have to use your skills, you succeed.

    If you are about to get robbed and you use your techniques to successfully neutralize the attacker, and save both your life and your wallet, then you are a "black" belt, whether you actually wear gray, red, blue, pink or a freaking rainbow belt when you train! xD

    Thanks for sharing!

  13. Well said Neoglitch, well said.

  14. Albeit, I have only been training for little over a year and having attained my 4th Kyu (Green) in Traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu, I do get asked what belt do I hold and sometimes I feel embarrassed answering. I know that I have no shame in holding a Kyu rank, we all have to start somewhere but I think it's trying to live up to other peoples expectations.

    We need to forget what other people expect from us and realize what we expect from ourselves and what I expect is dedication and hard work and training and the belts will come in time.


  15. Hi Dave,

    You are right, of course. It only really matters what we expect and demand of ourselves. It is, of course, the journey, not the destination, that counts. It's been interesting to see that so many people struggle with the issue surrounding questions about belt colour. Thanks for the comment.