Humility and Arrogance in the Martial Arts
Today, I called an old friend of mine to wish him a happy New Year, and we ended up talking about different martial artists we knew. One of those fighters was a gentleman named Bryan ____ (neither of us could remember his family name), who was one of the best big men I have known as a fighter. Bryan was a salesman at Kim’s Karate, and had been trained in Shotokan Karate under a teacher from Annapolis, Md. He was not very tall, possibly 5′ 9″, but was very muscular and heavy. In those days I weighed around 130 lbs, and enjoyed sparring with bigger guys because although they were slow I experienced difficulty dealing with hard kickers and long limbs. I did not know that Bryan was a martial artist, because he looked like a body builder, and when I saw him sparring I could see that he was well-skilled. Although he was pretty scary to watch, I wanted to see how I would do against him because he was quicker than most big guys. But when I got in front of him, realized that he was deceptively quick! Immediately we became friends and sparred regularly whenever I could get to his location. I count him as one of the fighters I always had a problem fighting, but it was those matches that helped me develop as a young man. But that fact is insignificant here; the point was that Bryan seemed to have a chip on his shoulder and was not well-liked, and my friend mentioned that Bryan was arrogant and unlikeable.
After we had some discussion about the tags arrogant, confident, cocky, braggart and over-confident, I was inspired to write this article–as it seems that many martial artists confuse the terms. They are not the same.
Some martial artists have latched on to non-martial things, such as rank, personal/political accomplishments and close association with a famous master. Because of this, they tend to believe that others value them as much as they do. For example, a classmate of a famous actor or well-known master may hold his head up because of this association, although he does not share the same skills or notoriety. This type of arrogance is bad, because it causes the martial artist to place less importance on his skills and makes him name-drop more often. Not only is it terribly irritating, this practice is foolish because the day may be right around the corner that he will have a wake-up call showing him how much skill he really has–or how much he lacks. In the arts, we do see a lot of it, especially with those who are members of a large organization who have legions of brown-nosers and small fish from their pond who don’t know what good skill really looks like.
In the case of my friend Bryan, he was at Kim’s Karate because he liked to sell. He was good-looking, a fast talker, and had excellent fighting skills. I was perhaps the only guy in his circle that would give him a good fight, and he was much stronger than me. Still, he had little conversation with people about sparring, martial arts and technique unless you were a good fighter. My guess is that he was only interested in talking about practical matters–in other words, show him what you mean, rather than telling him. He was a friendly guy once you got to know him, but he was not approachable. Possibly because he was scary to look at, or that he only talked to good-looking women, customers or other fighters. It was surprising how many people did not like him despite the fact that they did not know him. Then to think about it, it wasn’t surprising at all.
When a man has trained hard, earned his stripes and has the skills to show it, he will display a level of confidence that others may misconstrue as “arrogance”–when in fact it may be simply be confidence. Many of you may disagree with the following statement, but please hear me out:
Martial artists with excellent skill due to dedication and hard work have earned the right to act “arrogant”.
Huh??? Yes, when a man has trained his whole life, and devoted a large portion of his life to the pursuit of martial knowledge and skill, he has earned the right to behave in a way that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I would go so far as to suggest that a highly knowledgeable and skilled martial artist who is simply confident in his ability and wisdom just makes people so insecure, they must dislike the Master in order to prop themselves up. I have seen this many times in my life, and have even been the subject of other’s misjudgment. One of the common situations that can lead to the false assumption that you are arrogant is your refusal to discuss or argue. In my own case, I tend to lecture and “teach” those less knowledgeable, skilled or experienced. Why? Because when I am sharing information with a fellow martial artist, I am sharing, not asking opinions. Often, I will recognize when someone has little to offer or has little I want to learn from them. This isn’t to say that you can’t learn from a less experienced teacher. But I am a very straight-forward person, and many of these discussions I have had possibly hundreds of times. I am also busy, and have little interest and time to entertain useless conversation. So when a teacher with the knowledge and skill level of a beginner wants to discuss martial philosophy, I will not engage. This is not arrogance; it is impatience, it is knowing my place and knowing the other person’s place, whatever, but not arrogance. Does this make you uncomfortable? Good.
Have you ever seen a champion fighter graciously listen to advice from a fan or lesser-skilled fighter? Not many are this way, most will not waste time on such a discussion. But most onlookers will think the fighter is “arrogant”, when in reality he is just avoiding idle yapping. Well, fellow forumites…. it’s kind of like that.
The truth is that martial artists would like to think themselves equal with all other martial artists, and it simply isn’t true. Some people are at the top of the food chain, while most others are not much more than plankton. I can’t blame a teacher or fighter who has earned his position in the food chain who is not interested in behaving as a guppy. He has worked hard to get the knowledge and skills he possesses, and little that is out there will capture his interests.
When a fighter is confident, he may not be friendly or approachable towards other fighters. When a teacher has worked hard and dedicated himself to advanced study in the art, he may not care to have many friends who learned in seminars or shopping center dojos. A martial artist who understands the profound lessons in the philosophy of the art may not be interested in hearing someone’s opinion about how we’re all supposed to be neutered, soft-spoken monks because Kwai Chang Caine was one. He knows what he knows, he knows what he can do, and all he may be interested in is communicating at his level and little more than that. It’s one of the reasons men with PhDs hang with other PhDs and seem a little strange; they are in a world you know nothing about. This level makes many feel insecure because they don’t look at you as equal… wanna know why?
Because you’re NOT equal. Get over it, lol!
Then there are those who are not as good as they think they are. These are the big guys who are pretty good, but they’ve either avoided the really good fighters, or have yet to face one. They have all the strappings of a superior martial artist, minus a little of the skill–or sometimes they don’t appear to be very good. I have mixed feelings on these guys. On one hand, I believe that the expert should have a certain level of regality to himself. Even when he has not arrived yet; he should be carrying some level of confidence wherever he goes. I even teach my students this. On the other hand, I believe in the old adage that one should hide his blade when among seemingly unarmed men. There is a great advantage in no one knowing that you are a fighter, or even in knowing that you’re a great fighter.
Last week, I was with my family outside an ice cream parlor. Getting into the truck, my 5 year old smashes his hand between his hand and the truck next to ours. I walked around to check him out and noticed a barely visible dent in the truck next to me. I informed the lady inside the truck and suggested she take a look at it. She was more interested in my son, and said not to worry about it, instead asking how he was. Then her husband came out, and when he saw the dent began fussing and cussing. He was little taller than me, but hardly a threat. I told him I had children with me and to watch his mouth, and then asked if he’d like to exchange information. He did not respond to that, and drove off–only to return to get my info. I realized that I had left my wallet at the school and gave his wife my name and phone number, suggesting she googled me to make sure the information was authentic. My wife brought out my son and made him apologize and he (apparently, he did not notice the star on my wife’s keychain identifying her as LEO) began yelling about kicking my butt. I told him that I was too old for fighting, but when he kept it up, I suggested that he meet me in 20 minutes at my business (“here is the address; it’s right up the street!”) after I dropped of the wife and kids and he could whip on me all he wanted to.
But then his wife saw the website and ruined the fun. She came and got him back into the truck, and we had a good laugh.
The point was that confidence can make you loudmouth and aggressive, and sometimes it will humble you and shut you up. If you had seen me, you would have thought I was a lamb, but that was because of my confidence. Had he been a little bigger, a little more muscular, I would have had him follow me. Perhaps I was over-confident in assuming he was no threat, but I was confident that beating that guy down would have caused me and the wife more problems than it would have given me bragging rights. In a way, you could call this story “bragging”…
As martial artists we must not confuse arrogance with over-confidence, and not confuse those two terms with the other two. However, not tonight. Wife has cooked and baked oatmeal cookie bars, the kids need to be tucked in, and it’s too cold to sleep in the doghouse tonight!
Thanks for visiting my blog, and look out for part II!