Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How long does it take to get a black belt?

Belts for Sale?
      If you've taught martial arts at all you've probably heard that questions.  I have.  I hate that question.  There is no good answer for it.  It isn't what the person wants to know anyway.  Depending on my mood at the time I answer it in a couple of ways.  Neither of these answers are mine, I've borrowed them from other, wiser people.

    Answer 1: "If you pay me $12.00, I'll go to the back and get you one now."  I always say this one with a smile.

    Answer 2: "How long does it take to catch a fish?"  This is my answer if I'm feeling particularly philosophical.

Mastery by Robert Greene, worth the read
    Part of the problem is the question itself is flawed.  The black belt itself doesn't mean anything.  But, it is supposed to represent a certain skill level.  The real question they want know is how much time should it take to master this skill.  Again, the question itself has problems.  The term master is a misused title... but that's a subject for another column.  I've recently read a book called Mastery by Robert Greene.  A great book as an overall subject, but if you read it with a martial arts perspective it becomes extremely relevant to us martial artists.  What Mr. Greene discovered by looking historically and contemporarily is that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated study to master any skill.  This usually works out to about 10 years of apprenticeship.  What was funny to me was he described an idea that is present in the Japanese language, that we're missing in English called Shu-ha-ri.  What was unusual was that the skill didn't seem to matter.  The time frame was about the same.  I know different system have different definitions of what a shodan rank means, but this should give you an idea. If you practice 3-4 hours a week (52 weeks in a year), it will take about 64 years to master the skill.  This means you have to practice at home.  Or at least be thinking of martial arts problems and philosophies while off the mat.  If you spend about 20 hours a week doing martial arts related things, now this brings mastery down to about 10 years.  That's a scary thought. He uses the example of "natural" prodigies like Mozart.  He had mastered his skill by the time he was in his late teens.  However, he started his mindful practice at age 4.  I know I've been doing martial arts for about 15 years, and I feel I'm just starting to get my own feel for it, as opposed to imitation. If you're interested, check out the book.  It's a good read, and easily plays into martial arts.

So now I have a new answer for this question.  "10,000 hours of mindful practice."

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